Daniel Swift

A pure original: the inventive genius of John Donne

Perhaps it was all because of his name. John Donne: for a poet this must have felt a little like destiny, and even in the most unlikely of moments he couldn’t resist making puns. He sat down to write a letter to the enraged father of the teenage girl he had just married in secret.

Will’s world: Shakespeare as the man in the crowd

Shakespeare’s first biographer was the gossipy antiquarian John Aubrey, who famously described the playwright as ‘not a company keeper’. It has long been tempting to see him this way: Shakespeare the aloof genius, almost divine. There’s something chilly in this vision, and scholarly work on Shakespeare of the past few decades has increasingly tended to

What the sonnets tell us about Shakespeare

When Romeo and Juliet first meet at a party, their words to one another fall into the form of a sonnet: an exchange of 14 lines, expressing mutual love and ending with a neat rhyming couplet and a kiss. It is a touching, haunting moment, and like so much in Shakespeare, it also has an

Killing time: the poetry of Keith Douglas

Keith Douglas is perhaps the best-known overlooked poet. He died following the D-Day landings in 1944, and his Collected Poems were published in 1951, followed by a Selected Poems in 1964. ‘Now, 20 years after his death,’ wrote Ted Hughes in his slightly puffy introduction to that volume, ‘it is becoming clear that he offers

A man for all ages

The deployment of Shakespeare to describe Brexit is by now a cliché. It might take the form of a quotation, be borrowed in a headline, or involve the name of one of the better-known characters; it might turn up in that most hollow of adjectives, Shakespearean. It has two possible modes. There is triumphalism drawn


In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of slightly ramshackle workmen decide to put on a play. The play they choose — The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe — is famously and funnily terrible, as is their handling of it. Its central scene takes place at night, so

Daydreams in the outback

Gerald Murnane is the kind of writer literary critics adore. His novels have little in the way of plot or even character, and it is hard to tell the narrator from the writer, so that all his stories might be essays; his sentences are weirdly flat but interrupted occasionally by wild visions. Try this, for

In a vale of tears

Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece is a puzzling and often terrible poem. Lucrece, the devout wife of Collatine, is raped by Tarquin, the son of the king of Rome. Her suffering inspires a revolution led by Brutus, and this is the beginning of the first Roman republic. It’s a rich myth of sex and politics, and

Shakespeare’s eerie genius

‘What country, friends, is this?’ asks Viola at the start of Twelfth Night. She is shipwrecked and heartbroken; she does not know where she is, nor does she really care. Shakespeare is fascinated by strange places, and by how familiar places may become strange; how the world looks different if we look at it from

The changing face of battle

On War and Writing by Samuel Hynes is hardly about war at all. There is little about combat here, or the actual business of fighting and killing — what Shakespeare wryly called ‘the fire-eyed maid of smoky war/ All hot and bleeding’. Hynes is an august scholar of English literature and particularly the literature of

Telling stories

John Burnside is the author of an impressive bookshelf of elegant novels and slim, precise volumes of poetry, and like all prolific writers he has certain repeated themes. Nicely, repetition is one of his themes. He writes of the tricks of memory, and the impossibility of perfectly recalling the past. He writes of absent fathers,

A losing streak

In backgammon, a blot is a single checker, sitting alone and unprotected. This is a sly title for this sly novel (which was published in the US as the more literal A Gambler’s Anatomy). The hero, Alexander Bruno, is a single, exposed man, and a professional backgammon player. He also suffers from an eye condition:

Fierce indignation

In an autobiographical note written late in his life, Jonathan Swift set down an astonishing anecdote from his childhood. When he was a baby in Dublin, he was put into the care of an English wet nurse, and one day she heard that one of her relatives back in England was close to death. Hoping

Listen with Mother

Ian McEwan’s novels are drawn to enclosed spaces. There is the squash court upon which the surgeon plays a meticulously described game in Saturday, and the honeymoon suite in a little seaside hotel for the awkward newlyweds in On Chesil Beach. In Atonement, the mother is kept in her bedroom by migraines while her daughter

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

Wonderful waffle

It is hard to explain the contents of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s vast series My Struggle because not much happens. Or rather: a lot of things almost happen. In these strange and unquantifiable books, which feel like a spiritual autobiography but read like trashy fiction, Knausgaard recounts his ambiguous relationships with his brother and parents and

Casual, funny, flirtatious, severe

When The Waste Land first appeared, there were rumours that it was a hoax. It seemed so strange: 400 lines in many languages, and even the sections that were in English looked as if the author was only teasing. ‘Twit twit twit’ ran one line: ‘Jug jug jug jug jug jug.’ Eliot’s long poem was

These I have loved

In the preface to his great collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden claimed: ‘I prefer a critic’s notebooks to his treatises.’ Auden’s criticism is like that: a passage of insights instead of a single sustained argument, and the same is true of Samuel Johnson, whose works are a pleasure to read for the