Friday, 23 December 2011

Cricket, I confess

Cricket, I confess, was never my strong point, though of all team games it was the one I most enjoyed. My father first taught me to play, pacing out a wicket on the rectory lawn. To this day, one of my proudest memories from childhood is of coming home for the summer holidays at the end of my first year at prep school, and bowling dad with a perfect off-break, first ball.

His look of astonishment, turning rapidly to pride in his son's new-found prowess, matched mine. He marched down the wicket, grinning broadly, shook my hand and then gave me a rare hug. 'Well done!" he said. "I say! Congratulations!" "Thanks, Dad," I replied. I don't think he and I ever loved each other so much as we did at that moment. I miss him.

I played in my prep school XI for three years, and later got, once, into the 2nd. XI at St. John’s, my next school. I played no cricket in the five years I was at university. When I started teaching, at Bedford School, I coached a junior team for a while, but the standard of cricketing expertise among the staff was generally high (there were at least three blues among them - including the headmaster; it was that sort of school) and I felt myself out of my league. I was sure the boys could tell I wasn't up to the job. Still, I enjoyed the idea that cricket mattered at Bedford: Jack Hobbs had had his first job in professional cricket there - as a groundsman.

My mother once gave me a photograph of Jack Hobbs, signed by the great man himself in the bottom right-hand corner. She was upset, I remember, when I told her proudly I had swapped it with a boy at school for an autograph by Trevor Bailey. Bailey's was a flamboyant scrawl, the sort of autograph I thought a famous cricketer should produce, like a flashy cover drive. ‘J B Hobbs', by contrast, was a neat, almost copperplate, signature: nothing extrovert about it. That wasn't his style. 

These recollections have been prompted by two pieces in today's TLS. There is a review of a new biography of Jack Hobbs by Leo McKinstry, subtitled 'England's greatest cricketer'. The reviewer admits it is hard to argue against this claim but qualifies it by saying that "Hobbs's career was one of relentless self-improvement rather than of innate brilliance." If I were a graphologist, I'd say that's exactly what his autograph signature suggests: someone conscientious, hard-working, unimaginative. The reviewer sums him up by quoting John Arlott's verdict: "An unassuming man ...  Making it all so simple." Making it all so simple is what great batsmen do. If there is an English cricketer at the moment who stands any chance of equalling Hobbs's achievement, it's someone else with the gift of making it seem so simple while managing to maintain ferocious concentration - Alastair Cook, who also learned his cricket at Bedford School (long after my time).

The Hobbs biography review is tucked away at the back of the TLS. The second piece that caught my eye has an oblique link to the first, though no one else may notice it. Much nearer the front, and entitled 'Loafing about', is a long and very complimentary review by A.N. Wilson of a new edition of the letters of P.G. Wodehouse (P.G. Wodehouse: a life in letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe). Wilson admires 'Plum' Wodehouse greatly, summing him up as "a humane man who put jokes first". He quotes a letter from Wodehouse to an old school friend from Dulwich College, written during the Second World War:

"I was thrilled by what you told me about Dulwich winning all its school matches last cricket season .... It's odd but I don't find world cataclysms and my own personal troubles make any difference to my feelings about Dulwich. To win the Bedford match seems just as important to me as it ever did".

Dulwich and Bedford still play an annual cricket fixture (this year’s match was abandoned because of rain). But I wonder if it means as much to anyone today as it evidently meant to Wodehouse?

The other day I found an article I once wrote about Edmund Blunden and his love of cricket. It was never published. But Blunden too had written about Jack Hobbs, in his book Cricket Country (1944), recalling that

Of Hobbs the well-graced I retain a very particular impression ... his ability to make the lightning ball appear to be in no hurry at all, so far as he and his bat were concerned.

Blunden described cricket as more than a science:  “a wheel of fortune, and a drama of personalities and intentions … a poem, a vision, a philosophy". Indeed, in one of his most famous poems, 'Cricket, I confess', Blunden gives up the struggle to explain cricket to a foreign friend and allows his mind to wander:

I fell silent, while kind memories played
Bat and ball in the sunny past, not much dismayed
Why these things were, and why I liked them so.
O my Relf and Jess and Hutchings long ago.

I know why I like this poem so. Cricket invites nostalgia, and here Blunden executes a deft reverse sweep of memory. His last line recalls the most famous refrain in English cricketing poetry, from 'At Lord's' by Francis Thompson. Thompson, author of 'The Hound of Heaven', remembers watching Lancashire playing at Lord's and, standing on the boundary of his own life, he calls up the ghosts of the two greatest cricketing heroes of his youth:

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro: -
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

[illustration: Sir Jack Hobbs, cricketer

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due out in the Spring, published by the Lutterworth Press. You can find details of the book, and read the opening chapters, by clicking here.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Edmund Blunden today

Every year, in the run-up to Christmas, the Times Literary Supplement has a weekly feature on its back page entitled Perambulatory Christmas Books. NB, the TLS’s columnist, goes ‘touring the capital’s second-hand bookshops, in search of a neglected work by an established author, for about £5’. This week he has visited Any Amount of Books in the Charing Cross Road, still (just about) the first place to look in London for second-hand bookshops.

NB reminds us, in today’s TLS, that it was at the same shop, five years ago, 'that we found in the outdoor barrow Edmund Blunden’s The Face of England (1932), priced £1, and read the opening paragraph. No one could write like that now, we thought; the tune has been lost. We asked ourselves why, and with that the good ship Perambulation was launched.'

I’m delighted to see Blunden is still being acknowledged in this way. He himself had been an assistant editor for the TLS during the Second World War and he is a writer who must not be allowed to slip out of view. His style is indeed distinctive: wry, observant, with a hint of Charles Lamb. Here he is talking (his written voice is usually a talking voice) about Japanese food:

It is in Japan that certain tastes and savours are understood which may scarcely receive proper attention elsewhere. The sea is the giver of these, and the thanks of the present author are hereby offered to the Pacific Ocean for such generosity as also, to the Japanese enthusiasts who have so long known how to appreciate it. The various sea-weed dishes are good; and when the baker of sembei uses a sea-weed for part of that biscuit, he does very well indeed. Our small daughters have noticed that!
   I forget if I encountered the sea-urchin when I was in the country last, — I think not; against this little creature I have no grudge at all, and “may his tribe increase.” But I find him highly enjoyable when he is converted into a light paste, and accompanied with a little rice. (A Wanderer in Japan, 1950, pp. 107-8)

“May his tribe increase” is a nod in the direction of James Leigh Hunt’s once-famous poem ‘Abou ben Adhem’. Blunden was a scholar particularly at home with the Romantic essayists: he edited their work, and wrote biographies of both Leigh Hunt and Lamb. After praising raw fish, in the same essay on Japanese Food, as ‘a masterpiece of the menu’, Blunden admits, with characteristic self-deprecation, that  ‘It needs an essayist like Elia, who has tried his skill in the absorption and eulogy of Roast Pig, to come and describe the blessings of o-sashimi.’

It’s worth trying to imagine how English readers might have reacted to Blunden’s enthusiasm for sea-weed and raw fish, in the still-rationed years after the Second World War. No sushi bars or soy sauce in those days: a Lyons Corner House or Kardomah Café was as close as most people got to ‘going out for a meal’, and the only sauce on the tables there came in sticky red or brown bottles.  More outrageously still, what was Blunden doing in Japan, of all places, so soon after the end of the war? And why had he taken his wife and young children with him?

Blunden knew the country well: in the 1920s he had been Professor of English at Tokyo University and had won a remarkable reputation for his willingness to tour Japan and lecture on English literature, offering Japanese students of this period an almost unique window onto western culture. And it was while there that he wrote was to become his most important and enduring work, Undertones of War, published in 1928.

So, after the Second World War, he was invited to return to Japan, this time as Cultural Adviser to the United Kingdom Liaison Commission. This was meant to be a one-year appointment, but his presence in Japan was so influential in helping to re-build bridges that he was asked to stay on, with his family, for a second year. It was during this time that he wrote the essays and poems which make up A Wanderer in Japan, though the title was misleading: he did anything but wander. Based in Tokyo but travelling to universities, cities and towns all over the country, in two years he delivered over 600 lectures. So great was the esteem in which he was held that many of the universities where he came to speak erected tablets to commemorate his visit. These can still be seen.

Blunden was not quite eighteen when the Great War broke out. He fought in it, in France and Belgium, for three years. He spent longer at the Front than any of the other war poets. His war poems, his memoir of the war, and perhaps particularly his poems reflecting on the war and its enduring aftermath make him one of the most important voices of the war. It’s not surprising that Paul Fussell devoted a whole chapter to Blunden in his seminal book, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).

The centenary of the start of the Great War approaches fast, and I hope Blunden’s writing will find new readers as a result. He believed – and in his work in Japan and the Far East proved – that literature can make a difference to people's lives in ways most politicians could not even dream of. He hated war, but war taught him nothing is more destructive than hatred. In fact, with Abou ben Adhem (“may his tribe increase”) Blunden might well have said to the recording angel:

“I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

 [photo: the commemorative plaque outside Edmund Blunden's home in Long Melford, Suffolk.

To visit the Edmund Blunden website, click here.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Re-reading Julian Barnes (i): Cover Story

There’s an excellent article in last weekend’s Guardian Review. In ‘Cover me beautiful’ Kathryn Hughes celebrates the return of high-quality book design: she starts by congratulating Julian Barnes for paying tribute – in his Booker Prize acceptance speech – to the design and the designer of his novel The Sense of an Ending. She describes the cover of his book as “an elegiac visual riff on dandelion clocks, which darkens at the edge to black, an idea of mourning that then runs over the edges of the pages themselves”.

Hughes argues that publishers have realized they need to be more attentive to the design of traditional books now that e-books have become a serious threat. I don’t want to get into a debate about this: I love books, I love owning them and having them around me, on my shelves, on my desk, in my attic; but I know e-books are the future and in that future I hope there will be room for both.  There are good things you can do with e-books that you can’t with ordinary books – and vice versa. Let’s leave it at that.

Kathryn Hughes is right, though, about the cover of The Sense of an Ending – up to a point. I can’t help thinking that, in describing it as ‘an elegiac visual riff on dandelion clocks’ she has understated the relationship between the book and its cover. In fact, the cover relates specifically to an important but easily overlooked passage in the novel.

Tony, the central character and narrator of the novel, reflects on the idea behind the image of getting under somebody’s skin. He wants to get under the skin of the woman who, forty years ago, had briefly been his girlfriend at university and now has unexpectedly resurfaced to disturb his quiet life. He recalls that his ex-wife, Margaret, used to prepare roast chicken by slipping butter and herbs between the skin and the flesh of the bird. He remembers having admired the skill with which she used to do this, and then adds as an aside: ‘I’ve never tried it myself, then or since; my fingers are too clumsy, and I imagine them ripping the skin.’ Poor, un-self-aware Tony speaks proleptically, and truer than he knows: the book is about how he discovers what damage he caused years and years before, and never realized or even thought about it.

The Sense of an Ending is very much a novel about memory and its perils: Tony refers at the start to ‘some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty’. This memory of his ex-wife preparing chicken leads to another. Margaret had reminded him of a French variation on this theme where the chicken was prepared by inserting slices of black truffle under the skin, creating a dish known as Chicken in Half-Mourning. The French call it Demi-Deuil. As the pigment from the truffle seeps upwards through the skin, it creates shades of pink, grey, purple and black; and it’s this, subtly but specifically, to which the cover of The Sense of an Ending alludes.

The choice of this apparently passing reference to cookery as the subject of the cover should take every reader back to the place where it occurs in the story (pp.109-10). Less than a page in length, it has been actually framed by Julian Barnes in a way unique in this novel. Tony begins it by breaking off from his narrative to comment:

I said I wanted to get under her skin, didn’t I? It’s an odd expression, and one that always makes me think of Margaret’s way of roasting a chicken.

He ends by reflecting briefly on how these days – never mind half-mourning - we stay in mourning barely long enough to get home from the crematorium after a funeral. Then he breaks off this reverie:

Sorry, that’s a bit off the track. I wanted to get under her skin, that’s what I said, didn’t I? Did I mean what I thought I meant by it, or something else? ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ – that’s a love song, isn’t it?

The whole novel is in the form of a confession, by a man who has come to realize he has much to confess. But nowhere else in its 150 pages does Tony speak so directly to his reader, even asking for our help in remembering what he is trying to say. Actually, this is a sly piece of indirection on the novelist’s part: he isn’t off the track at all, as the book’s cover reminds us. Nor is he about to answer his own question, ‘Did I mean what I thought I meant by it, or something else?’ He leaves that to us, in this way making us uncomfortably complicit in his ‘meditation on memory and regret’ (the Guardian Review again) as if we know the story as well, or better, than he does. Indeed, after re-reading this remarkably allusive novel, I’ve concluded that the line best summing up Julian Barnes’s sense of the relationship between narrator and reader is Baudelaire’s:

Vous, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!

[photo: Guardian Review (Saturday 3 December 2011) and Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011). Cover design by Suzanne Dean.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In praise of David Holbrook

I have been pursued by the BBC today. A news story is breaking that there have been more vacancies for English teachers in the UK advertised in the past few months than for any other subject. Someone wants to interview me about this. What should I say?

Well, for a start, I should ask, does this actually mean there is a shortage of English teachers? Presumably not, if all the vacancies are filled. I’d like to know how many of these posts had to be re-advertised – that would be revealing. If, indeed, the large number of vacancies means that young teachers of English get disillusioned and leave the profession then, yes, I am disappointed but not surprised.

I meet, and work with, many teachers of English and I'm full of admiration for the passion they bring to their role - teaching involves an element of performance: you've got be able to hold your audience, after all. And they must be doing something right: English degrees have been among the most sought after and oversubscribed in UK universities for many years, and remain so even now. This wouldn’t happen if there were no good teachers around to enthuse their students in the first place.

But English is a subject that can easily be made deadly dull, and it’s not a subject that takes kindly to over-prescription. When Curriculum 2000 was introduced by the now thankfully defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, English at A level was encumbered with more Assessment Objectives, with weightings more strictly defined, than any other subject. It was a nightmare – for teachers, for their students and (believe it or not) for the people like me who had the job of creating specifications, setting papers, devising mark schemes and training examiners.

I'm old-fashioned enough still to believe that teaching is a vocation. I'm also old-fashioned enough to believe that English teaching is about fostering creativity, about teaching students of whatever age to be creative writers and critical readers, to use (forgive me for repeating a phrase I've used before, in an earlier post) the imagination with precision. It's about helping every student to develop his or her consciousness of being conscious. Fifty year ago this year, in his book English for Maturity (1961), David Holbrook wrote:

We need not suppose that poetry, however well taught, will make all our pupils, or even the best, into mature and balanced 'whole' men and women. It is rather that without access to English poetry they are deprived of one form of sustenance, one positive aid to living. All our wrestling with life, if it is to have any substance or courage, needs to draw on the power of the word, the metaphorical power which makes the flux of experience that much more tractable .... Poetry can help give 'the very culture of the feelings' and a grasp on life in terms of the whole sensibility: poetry is a civilization's positive hold on life. (p.87)

Does any student teacher today have the chance to debate such ideas - or to read them? Rarely, I suspect. I have searched the reading lists given to students taking a PGCE in English. Nothing remotely like Holbrook’s book (which used to be required reading for all such students) even scrapes onto the bottom of any list I have seen.

One of the things I admire about Holbrook, who died earlier this year and whose books I have been reading or re-reading in the past few months, is that he sees the job of teaching English as fundamentally the same whether one is teaching undergraduates or bottom stream children in a secondary modern school. In the Introduction to English for Maturity he wrote:

This book is offered to those who profess to teach English … to help them consider their work as part of all English teaching – whether in the university, in the grammar school, primary school or secondary modern school – and as of equal value. (p.7)

He was one of those lucky people who at different times in his career taught in schools, in adult education and in universities and he taught teachers too, so he knew the job of English teaching from every angle. In all his books up to and including his last (English in a University Education, 2006 – published forty five years after his first) he insisted that English matters because it is ‘a discipline which attends to the imaginative exploration of human experience’. One of his most telling titles was English for the Rejected (1964) and in that book he talked about the importance of making such children believe their imaginative writing mattered:

Read their pieces as you would [Molly] Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, or Finnegans Wake or the poetry of e.e. cummings, or the rich wild prose of Dekker, or Nashe. Listen to its rhythm and voice …. Encourage them to struggle with the reality of experience, and don’t substitute for this the struggle with mere problems of graphic layout. (pp.208-9)

You see, for Holbrook a teacher’s ability to teach effectively was directly connected to the passion that teacher still had for the literature they had read at university and continued to read afterwards. So, when I speak to the BBC, and I’m asked why there is a shortage of English teachers, I shall say maybe it’s because there is a shortage of teachers teaching teachers to teach with the same passion for, and belief in, the subject that David Holbrook had.

[illustration: the cover of the second edition of David Holbrook’s first and most influential book, English for Maturity (1961)

postscript: I have been duly interviewed by the BBC, in my capacity as Chair of the English Association, about the apparent shortage of teachers of English. The story, if it appears, will be on the BBC News webpage:

Sunday, 6 November 2011

What is (or was) Cambridge English?

On a late autumn afternoon in Cambridge I am with a group of cheerful Chinese visitors who are enjoying the sun and the views along the Backs. They pose for photographs next to the smiling statue of Confucius in Clare gardens. From their shoulders hang tote bags emblazoned with the words ‘Cambridge English’ and, underneath, the strapline The most valuable English qualifications in the world.

Google ‘Cambridge English’ and you’ll reach the website of Cambridge ESOL which is a division of Cambridge Assessment, the ‘trading name’ of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, which is in its turn a non-teaching department of the University. Cambridge ESOL uses the label ‘Cambridge English’ as an umbrella for all the qualifications it offers in English for Speakers of Other Languages.  It defines ‘Cambridge English’ like this:
  •             an international language including the world’s major varieties of English        
  •       English that is understood and used globally for business, study and everyday living
  •             the English spoken in the real world – not just in the classroom.
So, 'Cambridge English' is at once a brand (‘Cambridge’ itself is a powerful international brand), a set of language qualifications and an all-embracing variety of English. Behind those inclusive words ‘international’, ‘globally’ and ‘real world’ lurks mischievously another definition of ‘Cambridge English’ – that it is everything ‘Oxford English’ isn’t.  ‘Oxford English’ is the English of Brideshead Revisited or – for current viewers – the English spoken upstairs at Downton Abbey. It belongs, so the stereotypes suggest, to a narrow and out-dated world, time-bound, class-bound, exclusive,

And oh, so seductively superior, so seductively
                   superior. —

We wouldn't insist on it for a moment
                   but we are
                      we are
                   you admit we are
                      superior. —

Thus D H Lawrence scathingly in his poem ‘The Oxford Voice’. By contrast 'Cambridge English', at least as offered by Cambridge ESOL, presents itself as class-neutral, country and culture-neutral.

Cambridge English (this time without inverted commas) means something else, too. For much of the past century it has signified a philosophical approach to English as a discipline centred on the study of literature rather than language, and on the principles of close reading and practical criticism rather than historical, cultural or critical theory. When Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (by training an Oxford classicist) delivered his inaugural lecture as King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge (29th January 1913) he reminded his audience that the University Ordinance establishing this Chair had included the following statement:

It shall be the duty of the Professor to deliver courses of lectures on English Literature from the age of Chaucer onwards, and otherwise to promote, so far as may be in his power, the study in the University of the subject of English Literature. The Professor shall treat this subject on literary and critical rather than on philological and linguistic lines.

This definition at once distinguished Cambridge from Oxford English: at Oxford the study of English was decidedly linguistic and philological, beginning with Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon poetry, some five hundred years before the age of Chaucer. At Cambridge to this day, Old English is taught not by members of the English Faculty but within the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

These differences between Oxford and Cambridge approaches to English are, in the twenty-first century, in most respects more apparent than real. But if you look at the Cambridge English Faculty’s website, you will see prime acknowledgement given to I A Richards for his defining contribution to English Studies – practical criticism; by comparison, F R Leavis gets only a passing mention. Yet for many people, even today, it is Leavis rather than Richards who embodies Cambridge English at its most influential and controversial.  Leavis himself believed this: “We were and knew we were Cambridge – the essential Cambridge, in spite of Cambridge,” he was fond of saying about himself, his wife and their Scrutiny circle.

Leavis himself was acutely conscious that Cambridge English and its Oxford counterpart were worlds apart. Late in his career at Cambridge he wrote to his old friend Tom Henn, who taught English at St. Catharine’s, about the new generation of people being appointed to teach English at Cambridge:

All I can see any point in saying further about Appointments is that we must stop the movement in of Oxford (all the Oxford men hate the Tripos) and the recruitment of alleged specialists in this or that period or subject: we desperately need men genuinely interested in literature, & intelligent about it in such ways as make them good teachers of intelligent undergraduates, and good examiners.

I came across this revealing letter, written in Leavis’s characteristic anguished hand, just the other day in the University Library Manuscript Room (UL/ENGL 2/13). I don't believe it has been published before. I found it unexpectedly while doing some research of my own into  teaching as the heart of Cambridge English from Quiller-Couch to David Holbrook. I mentioned Holbrook recently in The Singer and the Song, and I shall write more fully about him again before long because his key book, English for Maturity, is fifty years old this year – an anniversary no one seems to have noticed. As for Leavis’s letter, it too has an anniversary: it was written on 7th November 1961, fifty years ago today.

[photo: King's College Chapel from the Backs, 3.30pm Tuesday 1st November 2011

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Twelfth Night: counting on Olivia

I have been asked how to scan the following line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble. (1.v.244)

I thought it would be easy, but it isn’t.

It always helps to look at a line in the context of the speech and of the scene in which it appears. Viola, disguised as Cesario, has come to woo the Countess Olivia on the Duke Orsino’s behalf. It’s an awkward encounter: Viola has already fallen for Orsino, though can’t admit it since he thinks she is a man, and now has to try to persuade Olivia that she should accept Orsino as her husband – a man in whom Olivia has no interest. This awkwardness shows itself plainly in the staccato forms and fractured rhythms of their conversation. After the preliminaries have been conducted in prose (V: ‘Are you the lady of the house?’ O: ‘If I do not usurp myself, I am.’ V: ‘Most certain if you are she you do usurp yourself’ etc.) Viola switches to blank verse:

Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

But Olivia will not join in, and answers still in prose: ‘O sir, I will not be so hard-hearted.’ She mocks Viola and Orsino by giving an account of her own beauty which, like Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) is a spoof on conventional poetic praise of women’s beauty:
I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried and every particle and utensil labelled to my will, as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin and so forth.

Viola is not in the mood to be mocked and replies, rather more forthrightly than she ought:

I see you what you are, you are too proud,
But if you were the devil, you are fair.

Recovering herself, however, she gets back to the job she is meant to be doing:

My lord and master loves you. O, such love
Could be but recompensed though you were crowned
The nonpareil of beauty …

and it is only at this moment that Olivia too switches to blank verse. She completes Viola’s half line by asking (impatiently? quizzically? sarcastically?)

                                                            How does he love me?

But now there are twelve syllables in the line, not the conventional ten, and the underlying iambic rhythm is disrupted by the dominant stress on ‘How’ for Olivia’s question follows the rhythmic formula DUM-diddy dum-di. (cf Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 43: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’). Viola tries one last time to keep to Orsino's instructions  (‘O then unfold the passion of my love, / Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith.’ 1.iv.24-5) by telling Olivia he loves her

With adorations, fertile tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.

But this is finally too much for Olivia, who snaps:

Your lord does know my mind, I cannot love him.

On its own this eleven-syllable line shows little sign of being blank verse. Politeness, however, demands she should not be quite so abrupt, so she begins another inventory, this time itemising Orsino’s good qualities and looks, and this time in verse:

Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth,
In voices well divulged, free, learn’d, and valiant,
And in dimension and the shape of nature
A gracious person; but yet I cannot love him.
He might have took his answer long ago.            

But of this speech only two lines are conventional iambic pentameters. Every other line is stretched or distorted in some way as Olivia struggles to contain her annoyance and frustration behind a mask of good manners. Indeed, it’s best not to try to squeeze the lines into a shape they so clearly resist, but to be guided by pause and emphasis. I offer the following suggested scansion:

       ⁄    ˇ
Your lord
does know
my mind,
(I) cannot
love him.

   ⁄  ˇ    ˇ      
    ⁄      ˇ

  ⁄    ˇ    ˇ

  ⁄    ˇ

Yet I sup-
pose him
know him




Of great
of fresh
and stain-
less youth,

  ˇ     ⁄

      ⁄     ˇ ˇ

In voi-
ces well
free, learn’d
(&) valiant,

   ⁄    ˇ    ˇ
   ⁄     ˇ
   ⁄     ˇ
   ⁄        ˇ
   ⁄   ˇ

And in di-
and the
shape of

          ⁄   ˇ  ˇ

  ⁄      ˇ
  ˇ     ˇ     
    ⁄    ˇ  
  ⁄       ˇ

(A) gracious
but yet I
love him.

 ⁄       ˇ           ˇ
⁄   ˇ 
⁄     ˇ
      ⁄    ˇ  ˇ

He might have
took his
 long ago.


I’ve set myself two rules here. First, to try to find five stresses for each line, which, even introducing trisyllabic feet (e.g. in line 6) is not too difficult since so many of the lines have more than ten syllables.  Second, to follow the classical principle that you cannot have a pause – a caesura – in the middle of a metrical foot: if I had scanned line 2 in standard iambics, the pause would have come in the middle of the fourth foot (‘-uous, II know’) which wouldn’t do.

Not everyone will be happy with my stressing the two ‘ands’ in line 5, nor with the way I have scanned the second half of line 6. But the fact that Olivia uses the statement ‘I cannot love him’ twice in seven lines invites variation; and dramatically I think an actresss and an audience might get more out of this speech by emphasizing the contrast between her feelings and Orsino’s in the last two lines.

I'm grateful to the student who asked my advice about this speech. I've known Twelfth Night almost all my life, and it was the first Shakespeare play in which I ever acted, but I have never had to think so hard before about how a line should actually be spoken. Better late than never, I suppose!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Singer and the Song

The other day I was in Sèvres, at CIEP - the Centre internationale d’études pédagogique - giving a lecture entitled ‘The Singer and the Song’. This was the final session of a two-day training programme with colleagues from all over France and Belgium who teach English Language and Literature to students taking the OIB, the British option within the French Bac.

My starting point was to ask why students of all ages so often find poetry less appealing or accessible than fiction or drama, and I wanted to focus on what poets themselves have to say about what they think poetry is, what it does and why they write it. Too often, it seems to me, we take these questions for granted or we simply avoid asking them because the answers are too difficult. My title therefore celebrated the poet as well as the poetry: to help students see the point of poetry, we should listen to what poets have to say about themselves as poets and about poetry as a way of using the imagination with precision.

For a start, of course, poets sing. ‘Arma virumque cano sang Virgil as he launched himself into the Aeneid. W.H. Auden told his fellow poets it was their job to sing:

          Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress ….

Robert Herrick famously listed all the subjects he wanted to sing about:

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all. (‘The Argument of his Booke’)

For Herrick, as for Auden, to write and to sing are synonymous in poetry. His subjects embrace the whole of human experience from the every day to the ever after. It’s important for students to learn that no subject is off limits for a poet: Yeats wrote in ‘The Spur’:

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance on my old age.
They were not such a curse when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

So what do poets say about why they write poetry and what poetry can do? Anthony Hecht first:

One of the things I think I learned from Elizabeth Bishop, from Thomas Hardy, from Robert Frost, concerned particularity and clarity of seeing. Seen with enough precision, things become wonderful, and one can see a world in a grain of sand.

Two things appeal to me about this statement. First, I like the way Hecht is eager to acknowledge what he has learned from other poets:  for poetry always involves a dialogue between writers past and present. I noted, for instance, in my talk how Seamus Heaney in a recent poem* echoes John Keats who in turn echoes Christopher Marlowe. This is the debt that poets of the present acknowledge to the poets of the past, and helping students to recognize or discover such links for themselves is one of the joys of teaching: it is what makes them and us part of the ‘community of literature’ – a community that involves readers as well as writers.

Second, those words ‘particularity’, ‘clarity’ and ‘precision’ lie at the heart of poetry and perhaps at the heart of all art that attempts to represent the world to us. John Ruskin had this to say (in Modern Painters, though he kept repeating the point throughout his life):

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this word is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.

This reminds me immediately of Matthew Arnold’s stress on aiming to ‘see life clearly and to see it whole’, an aim which in a later generation E. M. Forster was also to stress. Because Forster lived such a long life (he lived until he was ninety and died in 1970) it is easy to forget that he was the contemporary of the poets who lived and died in the Great War, that Rupert Brooke admired him and that he admired Edward Thomas, who wrote thus about poetry:

Concentration, intensity of mood, is the one necessary condition in the poet and in the poem. By this concentration something is detached from the confused immensity of life and receives individuality.

I tried to demonstrate this by picking up the reference to ‘the court of Mab’ in Herrick’s poem and recalling how Shakespeare first introduced Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet:

She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider web;
Her collars, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams;
Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid …. (Act 1 Scene 4)

If ever there was a prime example of a poet ‘using imagination with precision’ (a phrase I heard used earlier this year by Professor Priya Gopal), this is surely it. And not just concentration: look how the fingers - the ‘finger of an alderman’ at the start of the passage and the ‘lazy’ finger of a maid at the end - both point us in directions that take us far beyond the simple idea that Queen Mab’s carriage is miniscule. These are not similes, and if they are examples of metaphorical language they remind us that poetry and metaphor are inextricable:

Poetry is not ‘writing about’, but exploring experience metaphorically. For poetry is a development of metaphor. Metaphor is not, as we were taught at school, a figure of speech. In language it is the means by which we extend our awareness of experience into new realms. Poetry is part of this process of giving apparent order to the flux of experience.

This comes from David Holbrook, author of that once-seminal book on teaching English, English for Maturity (1961). I ended my talk on ‘The Singer and the Song’ by suggesting we should encourage students to think of poetry as experimental; that the whole point of ‘exploring language metaphorically’ is to enable us to understand how words used with concentration, precision and clarity work for poets as writers and for us as readers; how they unlock the imagination and help to explain ‘the flux of experience’ - which I take to be the same as Edward Thomas’s ‘confused immensity of life’.  Seen in these terms, poetry comes quickly to have a purpose students grasp and value. And having done so, they approach the singer with a sharper ear and the song with a clearer eye.

*The poem is ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ (again, a song) in Heaney’s 2010 collection Human Chain. The poem by Keats that he directly echoes is ‘This Living Hand’ which in turn echoes a key line from the final soliloquy of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

[photo: Sèvres seen from the terrace of C.I.E.P.  early morning, 14 October 2011