English literature

‘Jerusalem’ is a rousing anthem – but who knows what the words mean?

The spontaneous mass adoption of deep feeling is always interesting. Jason Whittaker has a very good subject, in the journey of the cryptic lyric section of the preface to William Blake’s incomprehensible epic Milton, written and illustrated between 1804 and 1810, to its becoming the de facto national anthem of England. ‘And did those feet…’ only took on its familiar title ‘Jerusalem’ (which has nothing to do with Blake’s poem entitled ‘Jerusalem’) after it was set to music by Hubert Parry on 10 March 1916. The following day, Parry handed over his composition to his colleague Walford Davies, saying insouciantly: ‘Here’s a tune for you, old chap. Do what you

Arnold Bennett’s success made him loathed by other writers

Virginia Woolf admitted to her journal: ‘I haven’t that reality gift.’ Her contemporary Arnold Bennett had it in spades. He was a great novelist, as anyone who has read Riceyman’s Steps or the Clayhanger trilogy would attest. Being also the contemporary of Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence – you might say this was one of the reasons his reputation became obscured since those glory days of English fiction – he had fierce competition. Woolf’s snobbishness about him (see her lecture on ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’) did not help matters. It was easy to be snobbish about Bennett, ‘The Man from the North’, to use the title of

What have the Anglo-Saxons ever done for us?

It has been a while since I’ve considered the vexed question of Byrhtnoth’s ‘ofermod’. More than 30 years, in fact. I remember, as if it were yesterday, my Anglo-Saxon tutorials with dear, lovely, gentle Richard Hamer. And now he is the author of the standard translation being used by my children on their own university English Literature courses. (I suppose the Latin equivalent would be having been taught by the author of Kennedy’s ‘Eating’ Primer.) Byrhtnoth’s ‘ofermod’ is the pivotal word in ‘The Battle of Maldon’, a 325-line fragment of Old English poetry about an otherwise obscure skirmish between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, and much studied on English courses

The dawn of Romanticism

Several years ago, I was interviewing the garden writer and designer Sarah Raven at her home in Sussex when a tall, tanned figure bounded up from the woods towards us. It was Adam Nicolson, her husband, and he carried an axe over his shoulder. A few months later, an email arrived from Nicolson, inviting me to come with him and a gang of his friends on a ‘moon walk’ in the Quantocks. I couldn’t make it, but realise now that the night walk was part of the research for his extraordinary and engrossing record of the time William and Dorothy Wordsworth spent in Somerset with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This ‘year

From fame to shame

Biographers are a shady lot. For all their claims about immortalising someone in print, as if their ink were a kind of embalming fluid, it has long been suspected that they enjoy wielding their pens more like a cosh or a scalpel. Victorian writers were especially nervous about the prospect of a biographer prodding and slashing away at their reputations. Tennyson worried that he would be ‘ripped up like a pig’ after his death, and many of his contemporaries did all they could to present their best face to posterity: hand-picking an authorised biographer; making a bonfire out of any embarrassing letters; discreetly muzzling friends who might be tempted into

Outpourings of love and loss

The deserved success of Shaun Usher’s marvellous anthology Letters of Note has inspired several imitators, and Caroline Atkins’s sparkling collection makes an ideal companion volume. Here are missives both literary and otherwise, all of them destined never to be read by their intended recipients. Some are grave, some are tender; some are funny, several are vengeful or self-justifying. It’s a great idea for a book. A letter which goes missing is of course a standard tragedy-inducing device in fiction.  Romeo could have lived had he received Juliet’s letter; but perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is poor Tess Durbeyfield’s to Angel Clare. Never was a flap of carpet responsible for

Literary mafia boss

Edward Garnett, radical, pacifist, freethinker, Russophile man of letters, was from the 1890s onwards for many years the pre-eminent fixer of English literature. D.H. Lawrence’s widow Frieda hailed him as ‘the midwife’ of Lawrence’s ‘genius’. And so he was; while he also nurtured Joseph Conrad, T.E. Lawrence, Edward Thomas, Liam O’Flaherty, H.E. Bates and Henry Green. He presided as ‘reader’ over the shoals of expectant manuscripts piling up daily at the publishers — starting out at Fisher Unwin, doing the business for Heinemann and Duckworth, putting in long stints at Dent and ending up at Cape. Jonathan Cape headhunted Garnett for his new firm in 1921 as ‘the best reader’

A man with an agenda

What’s this? An autobiography by Stuart Hall? Wasn’t he one of the guys who put the Eng. Lit. departments out to grass by arguing that it was senseless to talk about fictional characters as if they were real people when the truth was that real people were fictional constructs? Indeed he was; but don’t go thinking that just because Hall embarked, shortly before his death in 2014, on writing his life story, that he’d given up on the decentred subject. As he remarks early on in Familiar Stranger, despite our need to grasp our inner being, ‘we’ll never be ourselves’. It’s a nice line. It’s also a rare moment of

Found in translation

Buririggu deshita. Suraibi tōbu Wēbu de gairu to gimburu shite, Nante mimuji na borogōbu, Mōmu rassu autoguraibimashita ne. If this looks familiar, it’s not surprising. This is the first verse of ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll, translated into Japanese by Noriko Watanabe. Ms Watanabe is a translator of children’s books living in Sendai, in the north of Japan, and she is working on a new translation of the two Alice books. I met her in a bar called Come Here. Is translating Lewis Carroll, which is already nonsense, into another language, a near-impossible task? I asked her. ‘No, not at all,’ she said. ‘Actually it’s easy because Japanese is about 15

A mirror to the world

[audioplayer src=”http://feeds.soundcloud.com/stream/260046943-the-spectator-podcast-obamas-eu-intervention-the-pms.mp3″ title=”Lloyd Evans and Dr Daniel Swift discuss how Shakespeare died” startat=1008] Listen [/audioplayer]Who’s there? Shakespeare’s most famous play opens with this slightly hokey line, and the question remains for his countless audiences, biographers and scholars. Who was this man? What makes his works so apparently endless? Like the plays, his life is studded with riddles. Even the basic facts are slippery and over-determined. We do not, for example, know the date of Shakespeare’s birth. His baptism was recorded at Stratford on 26 April 1564, and since it was customary to baptise newborns quickly, it has been accepted that his birthday was 23 April. This is a nice coincidence:

An incurable Romantic

This biography of the craven Romantic and self-confessed ‘Pope of Opium’ concludes with the ominous words: ‘We are all De Quinceyan now.’ His life was shambolic but his legacy is strong. Many spores from his fevered mind have lodged in modern popular culture: his narcotic excursions inspired Baudelaire and Burroughs, his sensitivity to place influenced the psychogeographers Guy Debord and Iain Sinclair, his laconic, jaunty essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ was deemed ‘delightful’ by Alfred Hitchcock, and his Escher-like imaginative double consciousness prompted Jorge Luis Borges to ask: ‘I wonder if I would have existed without De Quincey?’ And yet behold the man himself. Broke,

Dickens’s dark side: walking at night helped ease his conscience at killing off characters

In England, walking about at night was a crime for a very long time. William the Conqueror ordained that a bell should be rung at 8 p.m., at which point Londoners were supposed to put their fires and candles out and their heads down. Again and again, until modern times, Matthew Beaumont tells us, specifically nocturnal laws were promulgated against draw-latchets, roberdsmen, barraters, roysterers, roarers, harlots and other nefarious nightwalkers — including those ‘eavesdroppers’ who stood listening in the close darkness where the rain dripped from a house’s eaves. Beaumont reads such laws as being designed to exert political and social control. To walk the city streets at night, by

All you’ll ever need to know about the history of England in one volume

Here is a stupendous achievement: a narrative history of England which is both thorough and arresting. Very few writers could pull it off. Either they’d have an axe to grind, or they’d lose perspective, or they’d present a series of anecdotes, or they’d end up in a Casaubonish pursuit of other historians’ errors. In fact, to get it right, you’d ideally be a mature and accomplished author, steeped in the facts, who was nonetheless tackling English history for the first time. Which is more or less what Robert Tombs, a professor of French history at Cambridge, is. ‘A writer of history ought, in his writings, to be a foreigner, without

Michael Gove did not kill Of Mice and Men or To Kill A Mockingbird

I suppose I should be grateful that the liberal intelligentsia doesn’t bother to check any of the facts if an opportunity presents itself to attack Michael Gove. They have a fixed idea about him, which is that he’s a Tory philistine who wants to turn the clock back to the 1950s, and they leap on any story that confirms that view, regardless of how far-fetched it is. The reason I’m grateful is because it enables me to scratch out a living putting the record straight. Last November, Polly Toynbee wrote a column in the Guardian claiming that Gove intended to strip English literature from the national curriculum, an act of

Memoirs of an academic brawler  

It’s a misleading title, because there is nothing unexpected about Professor Carey, in any sense. He doesn’t turn up to parties uninvited, like some of his less organised colleagues. As for his appointment, he was tailor-made for the job. Right class (middle); right school (grammar); right military service (guarding sand); right religion (books). An unsullied record of diligence as undergraduate, graduate, lecturer and tutor was combined with engaging resilience: ‘Teaching at St John’s was so enjoyable that I felt it was wrong to be paid for it.’ His outlook was just right for 1974; he was against ‘Old Oxford’, public schoolboys, compulsory Anglo-Saxon and all manifestations of waste, idleness and

Middlemarch: the novel that reads you

The genesis of The Road to Middlemarch was a fine article in the New Yorker about  Rebecca Mead’s unsuccessful search for the origin of the remark, sometimes attributed to George Eliot, that ‘it’s never too late to become the person you might have been’. To Mead this seemed at variance with the concentration in Middlemarch on ‘the melancholy acknowledgment of limitation’. She sets her vain attempt to re-attribute that sentence in apposition to Eliot’s story of  Lydgate, the doctor whose scientific ambitions are dashed in the wake of his marriage to the implacable Rosamond Vincy: ‘I had aspired to make a link in the chain of discovery, and had failed.’

Anorexia, addiction, child-swapping — the Lake Poets would have alarmed social services

The last time the general reader was inveigled into the domestic intensities of the Wordsworth circle was by Frances Wilson in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. She engaged delicately with Dorothy’s inordinate love for her younger brother William, and seemed to think her passionate attachment was romantic and sentimental rather than sexual — though there are 50 shades of grey between the one and the other, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Katie Waldegrave, in her riveting family saga The Poets’ Daughters, is not much concerned with that anyway. Her focus is on what happened to Wordsworth’s daughter Dora, the second of his five children, and Coleridge’s youngest, Sara. There were

The Professor of Poetry, by Grace McCleen – review

Elizabeth Stone, English professor at UCL,  has long lived on ‘paper and words and thin air’. Single, friendless, dessicated, respected, she passes out during a faculty meeting and wakes to find herself ‘attached by a chain of spit to her own cardigan’. A brain tumour is diagnosed, and removed. Expecting death, Elizabeth receives the news that her treatment was apparently successful as a gift: ‘Time had been returned to her.’ She takes her bravest decision in 30 years and goes back to ‘the city of books’ where, as an undergraduate, she had the only profound emotional experience of her adult life. When Elizabeth was seven, her unstable mother disappeared, leaving

Memoirs of a Leavisite, by David Elllis – review

As the author of this wise, patient and delightful book wryly reminds us, Stephen Fry — who, of course, knows everything — has recently written F.R. Leavis off as a ‘sanctimonious prick’. The phrase is probably typical of the way that today’s literary intelligentsia caricatures this tragically lonely, embattled and complex figure. ‘Hairshirt paranoiac’ I’ve also encountered somewhere: it does the trick equally well. Does any academic under the age of 50 now treat Leavis’s map of English literature, let alone his values and judgments, as pedagogically viable forces? Most probably not: his enterprise as critic, teacher and editor of Scrutiny is now strictly a matter for the historians (Christopher