Music in Jerusalem (Butterworth)

I am always interested when authors specify specific music in their writing.  So often we read a generic description ” the sound of music drifts down the corridor..” so when it is specified to be music of a certain kind by a specific composer and even a specific piece of music, we must take notice.

I wrote a while ago about music in Chopin’s The Awakwening link, and this piece is a companion to that writing designed to engage students with considering the music named during Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

Obviously the play itself carries the name of one of the most passionate “hymns” to nationalism played and sung at sporting events (and in schools) throughout the country.  When Parry set Blake’s Jerusalem he was inspired by its grandeur and power to inspire thoughts of Great Britain and for him the rhetorical questions all required the answer “yes”.  Performances like this at the Last Night of the Proms are designed to leave no doubt that Britain is Great and that England is in some way “God’s own country”.

Butterworth can buy into this expectation from the outset.  As the play begins, Phaedra, dressed as a fairy sings the poem unaccompanied.  The prologue has begun with a musical reference to an older time in terms of the pipes and accordians and then a solo voice pierces the darkness of the theatre – purity and innocence, singing Blake’s text.  Whether or not she sings to Parry’s tune is not made clear since the focus is the text and the point at which Butterworth allows the music of Johnny’s “gathering” to interrupt Phaedra’s singing.  Here the student needs to consider both the point at which the the singing stops: “satanic” and also the sense of innocence questioning surrounding a young voice questioning the very nature of the country in which she is growing up.  It may be that Phaedra is asking these questions in disbelief that something so wondrous might have occurred in what she sees as such a dark and satanic place, though the Satanic idea might just as well flow from Johnny’s caravan whence the interruption comes.  Which ever is intended, the audience is challenged and forced to consider before Act One even begins, the true nature of Jersualem/England.

As act one develops, music has an automatic link to carnival and to older times.  Padstow’s morning song is sung by the village and by the revelers on page 10 and a link is made to the early roots of festival in the Spring.  The words sung have sexual overtones (unite and unite) all suggestive of fertility and rebirth, yet the actual fair represents nothing of the sort.  Butterworth is once again juxtaposing the old with the modern and finding the modern crass and materialistic.  This song, however is not named in the text.  It may well be tradition in Flintock top sing the song and no one pays much attention to it.  The next song named is Werewolf by Barry Dransfield at the beginning (Prologue 2) of Act two.  Once again it is Phaedra who sings alone and once agian the positioning of the song in a “prologue” must be significant – almost telling the audience the theme of the act which will follow.

Lyrics to The Werewolf Song 

The werewolf, the werewolf
He comes stepping along
He doesn’t even break the branches

Where he’s been and gone

You can hear his long holler from away across the moor
That’s the sound of the werewolf when he’s feeling poor

He goes out in the evening when the bats are on the wing
And he’s killed some young maiden before the birds do sing

For the werewolf, the werewolf
Please have sympathy
For the werewolf, he is someone
So much like you and me

Once I saw him in the moonlight
When the bats, they were flying
All alone, I saw the werewolf and
The werewolf was crying

Crying, “Nobody, nobody, nobody knows
How much I love the maiden as I tear off her clothes”,
Crying, “Nobody, nobody knows of my pain
When I see it is risen, that full moon again”

When I see that moon moving through the clouds in the sky
I get a crazy feeling, and I wonder why

The werewolf, the werewolf
He comes stepping along
He doesn’t even break the branches
Where he’s been and gone

This song sets up several lines of thought as we hear it.  As the idea of the werewolf begins to surface, the audience may remember Davey’s story from page 28 in which he suggests that Phaedra may have been taken by a werewolf-  “whereupon a werewolf has heard her tragic sobs… and he’s pounced”.

This gives the most straight forward reading of the intertextual purpose of the song:  Johnny is seen as some sort of werewolf who has lured Phaedra to the caravan for his own ends, but who also can claim that “I love the maiden as I tear off her clothes”,  From this it follows that Johnny  is to be seen as a force of evil, but one who craves sympathy since his actions are utterly out of his control.  However, there must be other candidates.  Later in the act, Butterworth will challenge our preconceptions by bringing Troy into opposition with Johnny.  It is clear that Troy is accused at the least, of harbouring lust for his step daughter – “she in your dream,s boy?” (p81) and is evidently a man with little or no respect for the girls camped around Johnny – “Just fucking open your cockhole one more time… Little cocksucker…”  Indeed his language is the violent and sexualised language of the predator.  To Johnny the children are “rats”, to Troy it is possible they are something more.  With this in mind, the audience will begin to shift their thoughts and the duality which pervades the play begins to focus on Johnny.  It might not be good that he lets all the youth stay at his caravan, but is he really causing harm?  Werewolf seems to sum up the  pleas of the paedophile who begs for forgiveness claiming that his urges are out of his control.  The audience is torn between two possible werewolves and the uncertainty at the heart of the play is developed further.

The song is made the more powerful for the fact that Phaedra sings alone.  The song is in the First Person, thus identifying the singer with the unspeakable acts described and the plea for forgiveness.  The first person narrator both witnesses the werewolf and also becomes identified with him “When I see that moon moving through the clouds in the sky
I get a crazy feeling”.  We are told that Phaedra has gone missing before “gone off again.  She ain’t been seen since Monday night” (p41) and I want students to consider what implication this might have for Phaedra.  Is she in hiding because of a dark secret about which she can do nothing?  It is worth looking into some discussions about werewolves and the links to the cycle of the moon and thus to menstruation.  Female werewolves were often seen in folklore as the manifestation of “wanton” women – is it too far fetched to see the line: “…How much I love the maiden as I tear off her clothes”, as referring back to Phaedra herself – some form of divesting of the virginal once a month?

Probably.  At this moment the line between Innocence and Experience is blurred, and the audience is forced, again, to adjust their perspective and their moral compass as the play moves on.

Two more songs are relevant, if not actually cited in the text:  Scallywag by Jake Thackeray and the link material from a Tom Waits concert found here . Both are also linked on this blog:

Scallywag seems to be an exact fit for Rooster:

Scallywag: Jake Thackeray

Village scallywag, blackguard of the neighbourhood,
No good, you scandalise, your name is mud,
But it’s no surprise.
They say you nick their chickens and you fish their pools,
Poor fools, if they but knew the half that you do
They’d be rather surprised.

Though your muddy boots flap, though your britches let the sunshine inside,
Susan, the parson’s eldest, seems to find them irresistible.
She’s only got to give you the eye, eye, eye and in the by and by
You’ll be around after evensong on tippy-toe,
Tapping at her window when it gets dark.

You smoke your evil-smelling shag, and you get drunk as a newt
To boot, and this mortifies the Ladies’ Institute,
Which is no surprise.
And they say you plunder their washing lines for your clothes.
God knows! If they realised what you filch besides
They’d be rather surprised.

You, your bold brown eyes, your whippy hips, your melting smile.
Winifred, the teacher at the school is not as snooty as she’d like to make out.
She knows that if she gives you the eye, eye, eye that in the by and by
You’ll come early from the Pack Horse taproom on tippy-toe,
Tapping at her window when it gets dark.

You were rowdy, you were ribald at the Cricket Tea.
Dear me! By jingo! By Gad! The fella’s a cad!
Well, it’s no surprise.
And you’ve been seen to spit upon the magistrate’s car!
His motor car! You’ll be chastised, you go too far.
But it’s no surprise.

For although Rosie, the greengrocer’s girl curls her nose up as you swagger by,
Shy little slyboots, she peeps when her old man’s back is turned.
She knows that if she gives you the eye, eye, eye that in the by and by,
You’ll come tripping through her daddy’s curly kale on tippy-toe,
Tapping at her window when it gets dark.

So don’t give a toss for the gossip and the tit-for-tat
Chit-chat, they’re only upset that you’re not dead yet,
Which is no surprise.
And you can let them cock their snooks at you
and pooh-pooh, for, as I surmise, they envy you
And I’m not surprised.

It’s no wonder when you wash your back down by the riverside
Even the local countess finds it hard to look away as you scrub.
She’s only got to give you the eye, eye, eye, and in the by and by,
You’ll pussyfoot through the squire’s rhododendrons on tippy-toe,
Tapping at her window when it gets dark.
Ever so dark.
Right dark.

It catches the sense of envy and inverted snobbery at the heart of Little England perfectly whilst also hinting at something darkly sinister lying beneath the surface of the “scallywag” and rewards study alongside your reading of the text.  The Waits link passage is the evident genesis of Johnny’s virgin birth myth in Act 2.  To me this adds to the depth of Johnny – it is not relevant that the material is not original to Butterworth.  I love it that Johnny has knowledge not just of the dark and arcane, but also of the peripheries of the popular music industry.  No chance any of these children will have heard Waits, so Johnny has free rein to improvise or riff on the material,  Like so much more that he says, the story can be shown to be invented, yet once again, the acolytes eventually believe him, or at least recognise the possibility of truth in his tale.  The audience is left in a condition of doubt, however.  We are fascinated by Johnny’s myths and the legends that are created.  With this one, we want his verbal bravado to be true, however we may well recognise the Waits story – a lovely double layer of response is thus sown.

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Filed under jerusalem, music inb literature, OCR NEW English Literature

That’s how we speak: Jerusalem and Shakespeare. Language in drama and other musings.

Caution: Explicit text!

By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her
very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her
great P’s.

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?

I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be
buried in thy eyes.

and I have not even begun to explore the nurse… (ooh matron!)

All of the above are pleasingly filthy yet most students pass them with hardly a second glance. Depending on age we may discuss the double entendres, but the impression is that this is Shakespeare indulging in literary games for his own pleasure and to allow school children 400 years on to write essays about metaphor and Elisabethan puns. This misses the point, surely. For these jokes to work they must be recognisable to the audience and for any play to “work” the dialogue must needs reflect the common speech patterns of the audience to enable easy assimilation.

What we have here is filth, but recognisable filth from everyday parlance. Malvolio gives Shakespeare’s version of the coy “see you next Tuesday” gloss on the biggest taboo word in our language (though Chaucer of course knew no such taboo when he allowed Alisoun to be grabbed by the “queynt” -fashions change.); Hamlet repeats the same joke in his “country matters” and then employs the common reference to Nothing as representing the vagina – no “thing” -ha ha ha – which leads neatly to Much Ado About Vagina or Nothing and the common use of the verb to die to mean orgasm. Benedick’s offer to “die in Beatrice’s lap is not really the romantic gesture that it sounds.

One could go on and on and on. Shakespeare is writing in the language of the day for people of the day and it is this which i want to consider in terms of Jerusalem, which I am teaching in the Lower 6th this term.

At the recent English Association conference I heard David Hahn and Gordon McMullen speaking variously on “Language and Literature -a perfect match” and “Shakespeare today”. Both were engaging and thought provoking and this discussion was prompted by the talks. It is not an attempt to precis their presentations in any way, but rather is a riff on the ideas I heard as applied to my current teaching.

First then, to the aspect of language that many may find off-putting when bringing Jerusalem into the classroom. The first pages contain several “bollocks”, ‘fucks’, ‘fuckings’ and even a “cunt”, alongside the minor oaths – “bloody” and so on. The action depicts a feral outsider taking drugs and trying to humiliate authority figures in the shape of Parsons and Fawcett. But when the other day I suggested to my class that this was Shakespearian, they were surprised. I would argue that we don’t recognise Shakespeare’s oath strewn vernacular for what it is – everyday speech. All those “by’r’lady” or “God’s Wounds” no longer carry any cultural capital designed to shock.. and Falstaff is seen as a loveable old sot who, despite his appalling debauchery, is looked on with pleasure by theatre goers today. My point is this: if you record an evening in any pub across the land, the language is that of Rooster. If you record any group of schoolboys relaxing and engaging in “banter”, the language is that of Rooster. There is nothing intrinsically offensive in any word in the language other than society makes it so – and fashions change. Chaucer can write “queynt” quite happily, it seems, and Shakespeare can scatter sexual slang and blasphemy in the mouths of his characters. Interestingly, the sexual slang is now considered too graphic for many classrooms but the blasphemy has lost its potency. Drama must reflect the language of the day. Perhaps a good example would by to imagine Alan Bleasdale’s Boys’ from the Blackstuff with the language of the Liverpool streets removed: Indeed, I suppose that a post on Yosser and Byron as characters might be interesting to write…

Everyone swears in the play. But the language is needed if we are to believe in the authenticity of the characters. What I love is the inventiveness of the swearing and Rooster’s way with alliteration and use of animal imagery. There is genuine flair in his language once we move beyond the initial hurdle of allowing our students to say “rude words” in the classroom.

One of Dahn’s comments reflecting the work of Lakoff and Johnson explored briefly the idea that metaphor is a vital thought process in life and considered how common metaphor is in our life-journey (see?). Again there are links between the idea and the writers here – metaphors of travel – often sea travel- fill Shakespeare alongside metaphors of health, food and animals – hardly surprising that this should be so, given the society of the time and the main concerns of life in Tudor England. The point is that they are not somehow the magical choices of a unique writer, but rather the common ideas of the street, interpreted and raised by one writer amongst many writing for the stage in London at this time. They are the cultural currency of everyday speech – albeit recoined often as little sparkling gems. So, can we find the same thing in the Butterworth?

Certainly there is much to enjoy in the animal imagery abounding in the play – I want students to find their own, so no lists, but so much is made of cats, dogs, rats and so on in relation to young people that it is not hard to find. What Butterworth can do, when necessary is convey the “something special” about Johnny by his use of metaphor which deepens thought. In act 2, in his glorious challenge to society, he calls on his “beserkers” to rise “snout by jowl”. Given the common use of “cheek by jowl” and Rooster’s avoidance of the idiom in favour of the altogether more interesting and somehow darker use of “snout”, immediately implying hunting dogs or even pigs, we can begin to feel the extra depth and mystery which the character is required to convey. This is set in contrast to his acolyte Ginger, whose entire speech patterns seem to be based on what other people say – usually by referencing film and TV or the patter of those DJs so much more capable than he. This disparity of imagination in their individual narrative voices is an immediate indicator of their respective powers and depths – just as it is in poor Lee, whose narrative seems to consist of rare moments of lucidity amongst an utter inability to communicate at all.

The final idea to present here comes from a discussion that McMullan presented relating to Shakespeare’s “woods”. He covered ecocriticism and the need to see Shakespeare as part of a whole, when considering Elisabethan and Jacobean England. Again I shifted on to Butterworth and began to formulate ideas about woods and about the play being seen as part of a tradition starting with Chaucer and moving through Shakespeare and Bleasdale (and others) onto Butterworth and our world today. This is realism and is not therefore the stylised language world of Brecht or Absurdists, for example, and because of that we must recognise and value it for what is presented. Since Jerusalem seems to hark back to a “time before” throughout, both in content and in Johnny’s speech patterns, we must see the wood in this light. For Shakespeare the Wood was frightening even when being used as a Pastoral retreat, and this echoes the ideas from legend such as Robin Hood, where the hero creates his pastoral idyll in the very place which all fear because of highway murder and robbery- by Robin Hood… England has never had the fear of woodland of our North European neighbours, possibly because of the deciduous nature of our trees – much better at producing fertility figures and green Man than wolves and lonely grannies being devoured by predators… But here, the wood is frightening – not to Johnny and his nymphs and satyrs, but to the villagers 450 yards away across the stream (such liminal boundaries being common in all good stories of this kind). All those visiting Johnny have, therefore chosen to cross a boundary between society and the wood – they have entered an older and much darker place by doing so. For Shakespeare, wood was a prime building material and would later save the nation by being made into ships for Nelson’s navy- thus there was an intrinsic value to the woods which is recognised in plays like As You Like It, where Arden is such a positive place. For 21st Century readers, we wonder “what the fuck an English forest is for” – they provide little in the way of raw materials and are no longer the pleasure parks of Royalty that Chaucer would have known. For urban dwellers they are sanitised places of “nature” without danger and children being allowed to “Go Ape”. No wonder that modern society has few qualms about removing Rooster’s Wood to build houses – it adds nothing in our materialistic view of society. For Johnny, and his heritage through Falstaff or oberon all the way back to Pan and Dionysus, it is vital and integral to the world at large – a place of danger and safety, or life and death. A place in which Nature is presented in all its glory -red in tooth and claw. Closer to Ted Hughes than Wordsworth, perhaps… but that’s another post for another day.


Filed under AQA LitB 4, jerusalem, ks5, OCR A level, OCR NEW English Literature, Paedagogy

Clive James on Milton: shooting down a few soaring similes?

article exploring Milton’s overt learning

This article, published online and linked above should be read by all students of Milton as an antidote to the Milton scholars who praise his erudition and flights of Classical allegory as evidence of the strength of his poetic invention.  Go on – challenge yourselves.  His recent book: Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 is a fascinating read and is a useful addition to your independent research.

Poems of a lifetime


Clive James on Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and lessons in the “shutting up” of poetry

Published: 14 May 2014
Library/Writer Pictures

When I was young, cartoons by James Thurber were so widely known that people would refer to them in conversation just by quoting the captions. I remember not quite understanding the reference in one caption: “I said the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces – but let it pass, let it pass”. I thought the line very funny at the time but I didn’t know that Thurber was quoting Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon”. You don’t need to get the reference to get the joke; but the joke eventually got me to Swinburne, who would gradually turn out to be the most accomplished poet that I couldn’t stand. Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, would occasionally throw in an alliterative line for effect (“Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad”) but Swinburne wanted the whole poem to be that way: a meal of popcorn. Sometimes, in his blizzard of alliteration, he failed to notice that he had written an identity rhyme instead of a rhyme:

“And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten . . .”

Perhaps he noticed but thought we wouldn’t, intoxicated as we were bound to be by his sonic hurtle. But for a poet to be all sound is nearly as bad as for a painter to be all paint. After several attempts over the years to detect any signs of an underlying strength, I still find that a Swinburne poem affects me like a painting by John Bratby: there is so much impasto that the only tension lies in your wondering whether it will slide off the picture and fall on the floor. I have to give up on Swinburne; there is no time to go on quarrelling; and anyway there are problematic poets with whom one can quarrel to more purpose.

Look into Chapman’s Homer and you can see what alliteration once did, long before Swinburne arrived to overdo it. Agamemnon kits himself out before going into battle:

“Then took he up his weighty shield, that round
about him castDefensive shadows; ten bright zones of
gold-affecting brass
Were driven about it, and of tin, as full of gloss
as glass,
Swelled twenty bosses out of it . . .”

While the “defensive shadows” are good, “as full of gloss as glass” is beyond good: it’s brilliant. Just don’t let Swinburne hear about it. But you can’t stop poets finding inspiration in the heritage, and no doubt to be as learned as possible is not just a duty, but a good thing; and yet you can’t help wishing that some of the learned poets since Shakespeare had been blessed with the knack of forgetting what they had read.

For much of his life, Milton needed his memory because he couldn’t see. When he considered how his light was spent, he didn’t complain about being too often driven back into his remembered books. Perhaps he didn’t see the problem. But my quarrel with Paradise Lost – man against mountain! – begins with how Milton’s beaver-dams of learning turn streams of invention into stagnant ponds. One of the several Miltonians among my friends kindly goes on telling me that the displays of learning were part of the invention. Milton obviously believed that to be true. But here I am, once more submitting myself to Paradise Lost in the hope of being caught up; and once more realizing that the famous clash between T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis on the subject of Milton (Leavis did most of the clashing) was not a quarrel about nothing. It was really about a monumental example of poetic genius defeating itself; because the question of the possible insufficiency of his single most important work would never have arisen if it did not seem to pride itself on undoing things that Milton well knew how to do. A consummate lyricist faced with his biggest opportunity, he strained every muscle to be bad. Let one illustration serve, from Book IX. Eve has just spoken, and now she is described:

“Thus saying, from her Husbands hand her hand
Soft she withdrew, and, like a Wood-Nymph light,
Oread or Dryad, or of Delia’s Traine,
Betook her to the groves, but Delia’s self
In gait surpassed and Goddess-like deport,
Though not as shee with Bow and Quiver armed,
But with such Gardning Tools as Art, yet rude,
Guiltless of fire had formed, or Angels brought.
To Pales, or Pomona, thus adorned,
Likest she seemed – Pomona when she fled
Vertumnus – or to Ceres in her prime,
Yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove . . .”

Such passages, and there are scores of them, are impoverished by their riches: erudition distorts the picture, whose effect divides into the poetic and the encyclopedic. This element of Miltonics can be called uniquely his only because he did the most of it: in fact, it’s a hardy perennial. In the previous century, Spenser had been often at it, as when he loaded a library on top of his two swans in “Prothalamion”:

“Two fairer birds I yet did never see:
The snow which doth the top of Pindus strew,
Did never whiter shew,
Nor Jove himself when he a Swan would be
For love of Leda . . .”

Even those among his readers who knew nothing about Greece might possibly have known that Pindus was its principal mountain range, and everybody knew about shape-changing Jove and his attentions to Leda. Similarly, readers of Marvell’s “Bermudas” probably knew that Ormus – still in business at the time, although soon to decline and vanish – was a kingdom notable for wealth:

“He hangs in shades the Orange bright
Like golden Lamps in a green Night.
And does in the Pomegranates close,
Jewels more bright than Ormus show’s.”

But here we see where the trouble with this aspect of Miltonics really starts: when an encyclopedic reference is outclassed by its poetic surroundings, like a fake jewel in a fine setting. The line about the lamps in the green night is one of Marvell’s best things, and poor old Ormus pales beside it. (Milton, too, dragged Ormus in, and to even less effect.) One hesitates to rhapsodize about the pure spring of inspiration, but there is such a thing as clogging the pipes.

The awful thing about the apparent success of Milton’s unyielding stretches of leaden erudition was that the plumbing of English poetry was affected far into the future. Without Milton’s example, would Matthew Arnold have taken such pains to burden his “Philomela” with this lumbering invocation of a naiad and her habitat?

“Lone Daulis, and the high Cephissian vale?
Listen, Eugenia . . .”

But surely Eugenia has stopped listening, and is checking the menu for room service. At least we can say, however, that Arnold, by perpetrating such a blunder, helped to define what makes “Dover Beach” so wonderful: apart from Sophocles, nobody from classical times makes an appearance, and even his bit is part of the argument, not just a classical adjunct parked on top of the edifice like a misplaced metope. Milton, of course, schooled himself well in the trick of pulling a learned reference into the narrative texture, but all too often, no matter how smoothly the job is done, the most you can say of it is that it sounds good.

A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start

But sounding good can’t even be called a requirement. It’s a description. A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start. Hence the shortage of real poems among the global planktonic field of duds. In the countries of the Anglosphere, the poet’s first relationship is with the English language even when the poet is indigenous. There is therefore no mystery, although there is some sadness, about the shortage of Australian Aboriginal poets. Until the corrective opinion of such inspired Aboriginal leaders as Noel Pearson prevails, it will go on being true that too few people of Aboriginal origin are masters of the country’s principal language. Published in 2009, the Macquarie PEN anthology attempted to compensate for this imbalance artificially by including anything in English from an Aboriginal writer that might conceivably be construed as a poem, even if it was a political manifesto. It wasn’t the first attempt in Australian literary history to give Aboriginal culture a boost into the mainstream. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Jindyworobak movement did the same, with whitefella poets rendering themselves unreadable by using as many of the blackfella’s totemic terms as possible. New Zealand might have been in the same position with regard to the Maoris, had it not been for the advent of Hone Tuwhare (1922–2008), in whose poem “To a Maori Figure Cast in Bronze Outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland” the bronze figure speaks thus:

“I hate being stuck up here, glaciated, hard all
and with my guts removed: my old lady is not
going to like it . . . ”

After twenty-five lines of brilliantly articulated bitching, the statue signs off: “Somebody give me a drink; I can’t stand it”. Tuwhare was himself a Maori, so the argument was over. Finally it is the vitality of language that decides everything, and this hard fact becomes adamantine as one’s own vitality ebbs.

Finally it is the vitality of language that decides everything

That’s not all: as time runs out, the mind is weighed down with a guilty mountain of the critical duties that won’t be attended to. There is barely time to read Elizabeth Bishop’s poems again and pay them a less stinted praise. When I first wrote about her, thirty years ago, I tried to be clever. It was a failure of judgement: she was the clever one. Will I get myself off the hook just by saying that I ended up with almost as many lines by Bishop in my head as by Robert Lowell? What one feels bound to acknowledge fully is her artistic stature. Of her moral stature there can be no question. The big book of her letters, One Art(1994), is a mind-expanding picture of a difficult yet dedicated life, and a smaller book of letters, Words in Air (2008), by collecting her correspondence with Lowell, defines the ethics of a historic moment: a moment when poetry, queen of the humanities, took a step towards the opportunistic privileges of totalitarianism. Lowell wanted her endorsement for his bizarre temerity in stealing his wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters to use unchanged in his poetry. Bishop refused to approve; and surely she was right. Students in the future who are set the task of writing an essay about the limits of art could start right there, at the moment when one great poet told another to quit fooling himself.

The business of poetry is now much more equally distributed between the sexes than it was even in the period after the Second World War, when women seemed to be taking up poetry as if it were a new kind of swing shift, the equivalent of putting the wiring into silver bombers. There had always been women poets, from Sappho onwards, and a few, such as Juana Inés de la Cruz, defined their place and time; but in English poetry, a small eighteenth-century triumph like Anne, Countess of Winchelsea’s poem “The Soldier’s Death” did little to remind the literary men of the immediate future that there could be such a thing as a poet in skirts. They might remember the poem, but they didn’t remember her. True equality really began in the nineteenth century: Christina Rossetti, for example, wrote poems of an accomplishment that no sensitive male critic could ignore, no matter how prejudiced he was. (There were insensitive male critics who ignored it, and patronized her as a cot-case: but the tin-eared reviewer is an eternal type.) Elizabeth Barrett Browning was spoken of in the same breath as her husband. He might have been the greater, but nobody except devout misogynists doubted that she was in the same game.

In the twentieth century, Marianne Moore achieved the same sort of unarguable status: she was acknowledged to be weighty even by those who thought she was fey. Back in the late 1950s, I would listen to an all-poetry LP that included Moore reciting “Distrust of Merits” and come away convinced that she had the strength to make seriousness sound the way it should. When she said “The world’s an orphans’ home” I thought hers was the woman’s voice that took the measure of the war in which the men had just been fighting to the death. Leaving aside Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore would have been enough on her own to make women’s poetry seem like an American thing. She was a Special Forces operative in a black tricorne hat. But there was also Edna St Vincent Millay, whose sonnets, despite their wilfully traditionalist structure and diction, looked more and more original to me as time went on, to the point where, in my mind, I was casting the movie about her affair with Edmund Wilson. Edna and Edmund could easily have become as famous as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, if not for one vital factor: Plath was the formative woman poet for whole generations throughout the English-speaking world, whereas Millay has never really caught on. But then, hardly anyone has ever caught on like Plath. In the whole of literature’s long history, Plath must be the supreme example of a poet breaking through to masses of people who know nothing about poetry at all. Fans of Byron had read verse before.

But if we look only for a big impact, we are treating women’s poetry as a commodity. The important thing is that women’s poetry has joined men’s poetry in the harsh realm of art, where nothing except quality can survive the perpetual bush fire of time. Donne, in one of his regrettably few statements about how “Metricall compositions” are made, referred to the putting together of a poem as “the shutting up”. An unfortunate term, and we could use a better one; because there can’t be much doubt that the shaping of a poem is also a pressure, in which the binding energy of the poem brings everything inside its perimeter to incandescence. If that were not the prize, then the great women poets of our time would not have worked so hard to join the men.

I still make plans to live forever: there are too many critical questions still to be raised. Most of them can never be settled, which is the best reason for raising them. Who needs a smooth technique after hearing Hopkins’s praise “All things counter, original, spare, strange”? Well, everyone does, because what Hopkins does with the language depends on the mastery of mastery, and first you must have the mastery. And how can we write as innocently now as Shakespeare did when he gave Mercutio the speech about Queen Mab, or as Herrick did when he wrote “Oberon’s Feast”, or even as Pope did, for all his show of craft, when he summoned the denizens of the air to attend Belinda in Canto II of The Rape of the Lock? Well, we certainly can’t do it through ignorance, so there goes the idea of starting from nowhere. Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realize what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.

Clive James’s most recent collection of poems is Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, which was published in 2012. His Opal Sunset: Selected poems 1958–2009 and a collection of his essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, both appeared in 2009, while The Blaze of Obscurity, the fifth volume of hisUnreliable Memoirs, appeared in 2010.

We hope you enjoyed this free piece; the TLS is available every Thursday on the TLS app. In this week’s issue, you can also read about George Eliot the journalist, Tudor voyages of trade and discovery, a spy in the Soviet archives, the Nazis’ war on modern art, and much more.

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Paradise Lost essay presentations

This is a growing space to put my current yr 13 students responses to essay questions under the microscope…

Each week I ask one boy to present their essay to the class.  I will add the presentations and discussions to this post as they happen.

Ethan on the presentation of Satan in the opening 250 lines:

Govind on the contemporary resonances seen in the presentation of Eve in the gardening argument:

David’s critical commentary on ll 342 – 388

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Approaching a “character” question in an exam.

This post has come about after marking a series of mock IGCSE English Literature papers.  For many of the boys I teach and work with, there is a reluctance to really engage with the question and the writing is really as sequence of events from the play or novel which do not consider the nature of the choices made by writers when putting a character onto the page.

My checklist would be:

  • No word is an accident and every situation has been set out for a purpose in a particular way.
  • The question will expect you to address the purpose the author has in mind when writing the character
  • You must not treat the character as a real person
  • Consider how the character in question links to the key themes of the text being studied
  • Ensure my quotations are relevant and focused on the requirements of the question.
  • 10 minutes planning.

In this case the question, from an Edexcel IGCSE paper was:  What is the significance of the characters Calpurnia and Tom Robinson in TKAM?

For many, this was an excuse to spend a deal of time explaining who they were and digressing by listing both things they do during the novel and also expressing Scout’s feelings as though these are all real people.

I would argue that the first question you need to ask is : “what was Lee trying to achieve at certain points when she wrote this character?”  After this, I would begin to outline the moments in the book I wish to use in my writing and then ensure that I have the thematic ideas covered.  At this point, the (obvious) realization that both are from the Black community in the book should enable me to make a clear thematic link between the pair.

I continue this plan in the powerpoint below:

10 min plan character

Obviously, there are as many possible ways of answering this question as there are students ready to answer it.  However, I hope that whatever examples you choose to use, or whatever specific question you are answering on any text, you will take my advice to heart and present an essay which is focused on exploring the writer’s intentions when they created the character.  Essays which are glorified summaries of the text and the plot will not attain high marks.  It is as simple as that.  English Literature is about the exploration of what you believe the writer intended when choosing specific words or situations in the text.  It is not about the regurgitation of memorized plot-lines or unexplored quotations.

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Journey’s End: beginning to analyse

This is another version of a post which can be found elsewhere, relating to PEARL paragraphs and zooming in to analyse.  This time it is aimed at a Year 9 group reading Sherriff’s Journey’s End and beginning to analyse literature closely.

Journey’s End PEARL

In it, I address the PEARL structure and zooming in, as well as referencing JANUS sentences as presented by the peerless John Thomsett.

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Yr 13 Adam and eve table tops

Yr 13, please find your table-top PDFs.

This is the result of a 20 minute braindump on the opening 300 (or so) lines of Paradise Lost ix.  The students were looking at the key points made in debate by each of Adam and Eve and then developing ideas about the character of each as it emerges in this sequence.  The follow up essay will focus on AO4 and consider the degree to which the depiction of Eve is coloured by contemporary attitudes and whether there is a shift – Jacobean, Carolian, Cromwellian…restoration…  This will tie in with the study of The White Devil later in the year.

adam eve tables

This sound file is an essay being presented by one of the students, relating to the depiction of Satan in the first 190 lines.  I attach it since one of the class was absent and will benefit from downloading and listening.  First essay of Y13.


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Thinking about writing

After an interesting discussion on #engchatuk last evening and having read a post by David Didau on writing with precision :  I have prepared this for my KS 4 students.

The idea is to take David’s clarification of a short analytical passage about Julius Caesar and to present the process to the students.  I have then added a few phrases which are designed to engage in “zooming in” to key words or phrases…

Use or abuse, as usual!

writing thoughts

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The opening of Jerusalem (Butterworth): a stimulus for discussion.

This is not a model essay, it is a stimulus piece, designed to provoke debate and get my Yr 12s thinking…  Feel free to comment.

Just what is going on in the short prologue to Jerusalem?  Students need to analyse the language used as well imagine the thought processes of the audience awaiting the performance.  It is vital, therefore, that students pay particular weight to the stage directions and the manner in which Butterworth has expressed his wishes.

We know that Blake’s original poem is much more of a criticism of England at the dawn of the industrial revolution than a paean in praise of Englishness – the way that the Last Night of the Proms and the ubiquitous use of Parry’s setting at sporting events would have us believe.  How is this portrayed prior to the beginning of the play?

Looking at the opening direction we are faced by the “faded” St George’s cross.  The symbolism is obvious – that England has seen better days.  The adornments to the prosc are, therefore interesting:  on the one hand, the emblems of a Pastoral idyll and on the other creatures of Myth and pre-history.  This seeming dichotomy is possibly resolved by the recognition that the foundation myths of the country require references to Giants – Gog and Magog for example and that such myths are always going to be filled with creatures designed to scare and keep people in a degree of awe.  Next to these, the Pastoral tradition of sanctuary and a return to a “time before” suggest a space in which the two worlds – the “time before” and the “time now” or “time future” are going to be in opposition.

Music is used to develop this idea and the audience are at first lulled into a simple, pastoral reverie by the folksy accordion and pipes -possibly a modern interpretation of a past that never really existed, in the same way as Morris Dancing is rolled out at all  suitably “historic” festivals, before the innocent solo voice of a young girl takes up Blake’s “hymn”.  Alone on stage and wearing the costume of a fairy, Phaedra embodies an innocence which is in danger of destruction.  She might be said to embody the purity of England before the “fall”, however, her innocence is rudely shattered by the “Thumping Music” which interrupts her song.  The modern world has intruded and she “flees”.  Butterworth is careful here to suggest her terror in this verb – she is not simply leaving but flees – a sense that her innocence is endangered unless she manages to escape.

Butterworth has not specified music here (he will elsewhere) and we are free to imagine the sound for ourselves and need to focus on the idea of “thumping” music, with all the violence implied in the verb.  Our thoroughly disoriented audience are faced with a scene of a Bacchic frenzy as the curtain rises.  The music can no w be identified as a violent rave taking place in a moonlit clearing, dominated by a vast mobile home.  The scene is one of violence, frenzy and squalor.  In short, everything that Blake was opposing in his poem.  Phaedra broke off on the words “dark Satanic – ” and the audience sees exactly that in front of their eyes, not mills, but a nocturnal rite redolent of Hellish frenzy.

As soon as it is seen, the scene changes and the other side of England 2009 is revealed:  the music is replaced by birdsong and peace descends.  Nature reasserts itself, though the carnage around the caravan suggests the negative impact that humans have on such a potentially fragile space.  It is into this space that the two authority figures appear, armed with clipboard and camera to challenge the power of the central figure of the play – his entry delayed by his spectacular challenge to their authority – Johnny “Rooster” Byron.  In his figure we will see the “time before” (part devil, part charismatic leader, part force of nature) face to face with “time now” (nanny state and scripted rules and regulations).

Butterworth challenges his audience from the outset.  His stage dressing presents the past as potentially violent and evil, but surely nature has its dark side and no one can legislate that away.  He is also clear that Phaedra is a very knowing innocent.  She acknowledges the boxes and clearly is seen to manipulate her wings between verses.  There is no attempt at illusiojn as there would be were we watching Tinkerbelle appear – no magic here.  The world is real, fairies do not exist, they simply appear in costume as young innocents.  Remember that the audience have no idea who the fairy is – she may represent the pastoral world of plays liker A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Fairy Queen.  Only as the play progresses do we hear that a young girl is missing.  It is not until act 3 that we are certain who this is.  By then the spectre of parental abuse and paedophilia will hang over the character and the audience may be wanting to reassess their opinions of the “innocence” seen at the start of the play.

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Filed under jerusalem, OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature

Yr 10 PEE to PEARL Much Ado

As promised, Year 10… your PEARL structure powerpoint!

pee to pearl MAAN

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