Archive for December, 2012

In my glossary I briefly touched upon how metaphor works in poetry.

Watch this brilliant TED talk by James Geary to understand it in more depth, as well as listen to the really helpful podcast from Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield at Slate below.



America’s impending FISCAL CLIFF is all over the news. But where did this metaphor come from? And why do we use figures of speech like it?



You could also look at this animation posted by the TED blog. Here is poet Jane Hirsch explaining metaphor.

Hope you see what they mean. *METAPHOR*

Read Full Post »

In my first Chaucer post I talked about Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, the cleverest and most hilarious medieval blog there is.

I could easily spend an entire day gleefully chortling over Chaucer’s posts, as he keeps us updated on how the fourteenth century is looking and invites other medieval celebs to guest post.

If unlike me however you don’t have hours to waste but want to consume the same hilarity in 140 characters, the blog has a twitter account!

So, self-indulgently, I’m going to do my THIRD Chaucer post. The second one is here.


Chaucer is jokes

A lot of discussion of The Canterbury Tales is focused on the interplay of comedy and seriousness, of ‘game’ and ‘ernest’, that runs throughout the whole collection. It can be addressed in terms of the whole work, or analysed in just one tale at a time. A really good tale to look at is The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, which schizophrenically flips back and forth between ‘moral teachings’ and more light-hearted scenes.

The important questions to think about are:

♦ Is there ever any kind of moral instruction in the comedy

♦ Is Chaucer constrained by the medieval literary theory that all writing must have a moral purpose?

♦ Are there places where Chaucer parodies this emphasis on a ‘moral’?

♦ Does Chaucer ever suggest that the two might be closely intertwined?



From timetravel-britain.com


Chaucer and the Retraction

A good thing to include in your answer to a question on this theme is the RETRACTION: Chaucer’s apologetic sign-off at the very end of The Canterbury Tales. Here he urges his audience to ignore the frivolous, playful parts of the work and instead focus all their attention on extracting its real moral core. It seems to be an embarrassed rejection of half his work. What’s Geoffrey up to NOW?

Here’s Chaucer asking for forgiveness for his own bad behaviour:

“Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns”

And here Chaucer tells us he would have written a better work if it weren’t for his own ineptitude: 

“Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that thereof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. / And if ther be any thyng that displease hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnyge. / For oure book seith, “Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine,” and that is myn entente.”


The pilgrims

Remember: retractions of this sort were common features in medieval literature. Chaucer is calling on a very conventional medieval trope to end his work. Because of this it’s not clear just how sincerely he endorses this self-admonishing. He would of course have been very aware that the bawdier parts of his work were not exactly how the Church went about preaching its rules of good behaviour. But then again, do we too enthusiastically make Chaucer our contemporary? Are we too eager to perceive him as ‘one of us’ – as a modern someone not quite wholly aligned with the Church, and of course not really believing all that stuff about strict moral teaching? Here at the very end of the Tales, is Chaucer performing another well-constructed act of irony and self-deprecation, or is he deploying a standard trope that works as a necessary disclaimer to appease his harsher critics?

What ON EARTH is he doing?

The retraction rounds off a work that’s generally believed to be unfinished. We were originally promised tales on the return journey too but we never make it to that. It’s a conclusion that seems to give us an answer to our ‘ernest/game’ dilemma, but only as part of a work that hasn’t actually finished yet. How tantalising!

In the style of oure greate Father of Poetry, I think I’ll leave it here too. X

Read Full Post »

Last Christmas I worked at small independent publisher Allison and Busby and while I was there they let me write a blog post!

This post was also about words on pages. You can read it here.

While there, definitely have a look at some of the books they publish. There are some really good reads you might not normally come across.

For a good Christmas read I recommend some of Kjell Eriksson, a crime writer from Sweden. This really is the age of the Nordic crime thriller so lap it up.

demon from dakar


Read Full Post »

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been too busy thinking up that pun for my title. Isn’t it good? Good, isn’t it.

(I’m sorry – it’s not good. I am donne with puns).

BY THE WAY – today is the shortest day of the year and Donne wrote a poem about it. Read the poem here. It’s almost like I planned it! (I didn’t)



While revising for A Level English, my sister once remarked that Donne was a “filthy pervert.” Her annotations comprehensively circled all the rude words, double entendres and naughty bits that were probably about sex. She could merrily trill away about ‘Jack Donne the love poet’ and had committed to memory a good number of sixteenth century euphemisms. (This marks the only time I’m glad none of my family has bothered to read my blog).

How smugly I cast away her book! Good luck passing your A Level, I thought. I know so much more about Donne, I assured myself, cooing over my highly important arts degree. Donne is like, all about religion. And stuff.

donne meme

But the moral of this tale is that we are BOTH RIGHT. One of the most striking aspects of Donne’s poetry is this dichotomy (a division into two) of sex and religion. Is he talking about feeling up a woman? Or talking about Christianity? Is it ever either/or? A lot of his poetry – especially that which seems addressed solely to God – slyly suggests another kind of history. These poems represent a constant, and often confusing, interchange of meaning. But there doesn’t have to be a definite answer. If you think Donne’s just talking about loving God DUCK, WATCH OUT, he might be thinking ruder stuff as well.

Donne’s emotional rollercoaster of a life-changing journey

x factor

These facts are ESSENTIAL to keep in mind when analysing the religious parts of Donne’s work.

  •  He was born a Roman Catholic. In sixteenth century England, this was ILLEGAL. Nonetheless he remained a Roman Catholic for quite a while. He also came from a family line that had a history of producing Catholic martyrs.
  • But, in 1615, Donne became an Anglican priest, taking holy orders at the order of the less holy King James I. 7 years later he even became the dean of St Paul’s cathedral, which meant he was a pretty big name on campus.
  • Crucially – Donne went from being a Catholic to a Protestant. He was an APOSTATE: a person who abandons a belief. This religious switch can be seen behind much of Donne’s imagery.
  • The usual story goes that young, reckless, womanising Donne wrote a lot of erotic love poetry, but as he got older, and became ill, his tone shifted to become more pious and more grave. John Donne for God’s eyes only. BUT it’s too neat a pattern; poems from the beginning and end of his career throw up his famously ‘metaphysical’ metaphors – his ability to crush two different ideas together in what is technically one image. Erotica and religious contemplation.

But can you give us an example?! I hear you cry my own words reverberating around hollow cyberspace.

av yes

Opening 4 lines from Elegy: Change

Although thy hand, and faith, and good works too,

Have sealed thy love which nothing should undo,

Yea, though thou fall back, that apostasy

Confirm thy love; yet much, much I fear thee.

♦ The secular read – LOVE

So, Donne suspects his lady of being unfaithful. Even though she’s put in a lot of effort, and maybe loves him, Donne can’t shake the idea that she’s putting in a lot of effort elsewhere too. The tone is implicitly sexual: her “hand” has been hard at work, and all these “good works” certainly sound like they’ve kept Donne happy. She “fall[s] back”. Does it mean she changes her mind? Perhaps it means she shies away from him. It also retains its most literal meaning: she lies on her back to have sex with him. So here we have the first four lines of Change – easily a love poem.

♦The religious read – FAITH

But the language used is also loudly Christian. The reference to “good works” has a Catholic ring; for Catholics, performing ‘good works’, i.e. doing charitable deeds for your fellow man –  was considered necessary for salvation. Juxtaposed with “faith” in the same line, the Catholic connotations are even more pronounced. “Sealed” in the next line could also be understood in this context; in the Roman Catholic Church the Seal of the Confessional is the oath taken by priests not to disclose what they hear from sinners during confession.  Donne is clearly aware of what he’s doing. He’s got Catholicism on the brain. You don’t even need to use the word ‘apostasy’ because he does it for you. In this religious reading, “fall back” is no longer literal but metaphorical. Donne, Catholic turned Protestant, has ‘fallen back’ from – turned his back on – the Catholic church. He’s an apostate; in this context Donne is the one whose fidelity can be questioned.

Another really easy poem to do this with is The Expiration

So, so, break off this last lamenting kiss,

Which sucks two souls, and vapours both away; 

Turn thou, ghost, that way, and let me turn this,

And let ourselves benight our happiest day;

We asked none leave to love, nor will we owe

Any, so cheap a death as saying, Go;

All this kissing and sucking and parting – is the persona separating from a lover, or has his approaching death prompted a meditation on the nature of his soul?

Here are some places and bloggers that might be able to give you more answers.

Here’s an English student like me posting about words and books and things!

♦ For a handy bio of Donne click here.

♦For a more detailed look at Donne as Anglican priest go here.

Guardian article by Roz Kaveney on Donne’s romantic relationship with God

….. And donne forget – I can ponne with the best of them. X

Read Full Post »

bookshelf with books

With January exams fast approaching, ‘tis the season to be jolly of revision. But rather than bombard you with more close-reading, let’s step back and regard the WJEC syllabus as a whole. It’s still crucial that you hammer out revision notes and re-read works. But asking yourself why certain texts have been chosen might free up your thinking. It will allow you to put the texts you study in a wider context and hopefully enable you to write truly sophisticated responses to exam questions. This is the plan, anyway.

The question of ‘classic literature’ recurs again and again. My old university tutor has a podcast on the subject, which you can listen to here. Why do some texts make it onto a syllabus and others not? How do the WJEC make their decisions? I spoke to Hugh Lester, an assistant director from the WJEC, who told me about the process.

The WJEC don’t have a completely free choice. As Hugh says, they are ‘regulated’, and must pick from a pre-determined Welsh, Irish and English literary heritage. Invigilators higher up than the WJEC have already grouped ‘relevant’ poets together, before passing this ready-made group down to examiners, who choose what they want on their syllabus. Teachers then go on to pick from this syllabus. Each group is making a subjective choice. Some texts make it into the ‘heritage’ – texts we can retrospectively classify as representative of our history – but others are excluded from it.




The WJEC only review the syllabus every five years. This is slow work. It’s easy to see how a literary canon can become crystallised over time. The WJEC syllabus is only one of a vast number of processes working to establish a tradition and in doing so, potentially closing up the opportunities to meet genuinely contemporary poetry. Exam boards represent ‘English Literature’ to students taking their exams in a specific, necessarily circumscribed way.

So the texts you study are not self-evidently the bastions of ye olde English literature. Is it ridiculous to censure an exam board for making a syllabus? Surely a syllabus is by definition a finite selection of an infinitely diverse range of works? As debate intensifies around exam-taking in Britain, and more people call for a radical overhaul of learning, such censure is perhaps not entirely out of the question. Certain people are unhappy with ‘old-fashioned’ methods of learning syllabuses by rote. Others fear this kind of learning will become even more entrenched under the governance of Michael Gove. 


But this isn’t reassuring to those of you currently sitting exams. I would recommend approaching a syllabus like this: certain texts are chosen because they contain something The Powers That Be consider relevant to you, as a

young person

♦ or a black person,

♦ as a girl or a boy,

♦ or as somebody from WALES – a place, like Scotland and Ireland, often perceived as marginal to England.

Race, gender, sexuality and nationality are not abstract concepts; you’ve definitely got one of something that probably means something to you somewhere along the way! The texts you study are malleable pieces of literature, capable of being interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Understanding why they’ve been chosen will point you in the direction of the answers that give you points! But just as importantly, if you respond sensitively to texts, you might find something in them nobody else even thought of. ‘Classics’ might be safeguarded by authoritative literary guard-dogs, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make them your own.




Let us zoom in on one aspect the WJEC likes to see in its chosen textsWelshness

For a Welsh exam board, (although not one studied exclusively by Welsh pupils), Welsh poets are important to include. But what makes a poem Welsh or indicative of Welsh national identity? This is the tough question. National identity is important for Welsh poets, but it would be limiting to see it as the only concern of Welsh poets. National identity remains a particularly poignant theme for Irish, Scottish and Welsh poetry; for poets who may feel like their unique personhood is subordinated by a general, all-encompassing ‘Britishness’. It’s inescapably implicated as these poets get themselves published, become identifiable in the public domain, and are consequently shuffled somewhere in among a British ‘canon’.


danDan Williams, a poet living in Aberystwyth, disagrees with me. Everyone else is more than welcome to disagree with me too. Below he talks about how the WJEC syllabus provided a framework for his own poetry, and just how Welsh he considers his poetry.  He mentions Carol Ann Duffy and Keats; see my posts on these poets here and here.


I also spoke to Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales. Her poems are on the WJEC GCSE syllabus. She told me that any reference to ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writing has been banished in literary discussion:

“Welsh, being an English word, is enough.”

She says she is, unambiguously, a Welsh poet. Her Welsh subject matter, the Welsh landscape and her total immersion in Wales, are enough to qualify her as a ‘Welsh’ poet.

These are important discussions to keep in mind. Reflecting on texts as part of a syllabus, heritage or canon – as part of artificial categories – will hopefully offer up a different perspective through which to view the poetry chosen for you. It is no bad thing to have a whole range of perspectives to hand, so that the way you approach a text does not stagnate but remains plural, fluid and always developing.

Read Full Post »

This week I decided to trawl through A Level past papers, which saw all my essay-answering horrors come screaming back to me. I can’t remember how I ever did that. How do you do it?! COLLECTIVE PANIC!

essay meme

Alas, there is an easy solution. Looking at past papers allows you to identify which questions come up again and again. This shouldn’t be your only method of revision, but knowing that a question on ‘character’ often comes up for Wordsworth is a good starting point.


Today, blog friends, I am going to show you how Wordsworth creates ‘character’ in a poem.


‘Character’ is a literary term that gets thrown about a lot, but ‘character’ is a fairly elusive thing. What do we mean when we talk of ‘character’? How do you construct a ‘personality’ or an ‘individual’ in a poem? What actually constitutes this represented person? Can you ever have too many rhetorical questions?

‘Character’ in a poem is an amalgam of different literary techniques; direct speech, free indirect speech, metre, vocabulary, style, form. From these you form your own assumptions about what Wordsworth’s chosen character is ‘like’.  Character isn’t just revealed through straightforward description, i.e. ‘He was short and liked playing piano.’  A character will be vividly realised in a poem because his/her attributes seep into every aspect of the text.


This is essential reading if studying Wordsworth and I’m sure your teachers will have shown you. This preface, revised a few times throughout its lifetime, first accompanied Wordsworth and Coleridge’s 1800 version of their Lyrical Ballads. 


One of the most striking parts of the preface is the poets’ emphasis on the poetry of simple speech – the ‘honest’ plain-speaking of them good ol’ rustic country-folk. It famously commends “language really used by men”, “low and rustic life” and “feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s contemporaries had plenty of problems with this idealistic, perhaps naive, and often patronising celebration of poor people’s patois, but it is important to remember that a lot of their representation of character is focused on just this ideal: the unexpected beauty and poetry of the ‘common man’.


village idiot

In this poem, Betty Foy, an anxious mother, sends her ‘simple’ son to fetch the doctor for her sick friend Susan Gale. Along the way she becomes so preoccupied with the fate of her son and chastising herself for her own wretchedness that the doctor and Susan Gale are eventually forgotten. It is written in a mock-heroic style; Betty Foy, a country maid, is jokingly elevated to the position of tragic heroine, churning out the hackneyed phrases of tragic romance and extravagantly lamenting her sorry state.

It’s a long poem. You can read it here.


Find the facts that you can refer to easily. For example, ‘Betty’ is often the name given to lower class, domestic servant characters in literature from this period. Wordsworth’s ‘Betty’ can safely be presumed to be of this class. But her surname is different; ‘foy’ is likely to mean ‘faith’. It is an old romance name – think of Spenser’s pagan knight Sansfoy in The Faerie Queene. (I wish I could claim that last bit as my own knowledge. It’s not. I found it on Wikipedia – SOMETIMES a useful resource). This combination epitomises the movement of the Lyrical Ballads: the grand actions and powerful sympathies of ‘common’ people.


Wordsworth really hams up the tension and pace of the poem, which matches Betty’s own fussing and disorder. The second stanza builds in intensity as urgent questions pile incessantly on top of each other: “Why are you in this mighty fret? / And why on horseback have you set / Him whom you love, your idiot boy?” In the same stanza, the repetition of the sound ‘us’ adds to this sense of chaos and fussiness: “Why bustle thus about your door, / What means this bustle Betty Foy?”  That hissing sound is insistent, and persistent.

Also look at how the iambic pentameter is working here. (Look at my post on metre if this all sounds weird!) It is equally persistent; Wordsworth uses plenty of monosyllabic words to really push the pace on and on. Look at lines like “There’s scarce a soul that’s out of bed” or “His lips with joy they burr at you”. They trip off the tongue faster than a word with two syllables would. The ‘I-AM‘ rhythm of iambic metre is also kind of like the gallop of a horse. And what do you know! Betty’s son is about to be put on one. Yes that last point is contrived.


Look for places where the kind of colloquial, idiomatic language we would expect Betty to use slips into the narrator’s own voice. This happens in moments that feel like Betty’s own stream of consciousness.  In the 21st stanza we get “The silence of her idiot boy, / What hopes it sends to Betty’s heart! / He’s at the guide-post – he turns right, / She watches till he’s out of sight.” The third line here could almost be the running of Betty’s mind; the thoughts of the character and narrator are blended, creating a kaleidoscopic and indefinite shifting of perspective. It is this sense that the character is, in a way, telling their own story, that brings you closer to them.

Direct speech is a more obvious place to look for vocabulary that distinguishes Betty as a ‘character’. Look at idiomatic expressions like “As sure as there’s a moon in heaven” and exclamations like “Oh saints!”

dorothy wordsworth

On a completely unrelated note, here’s Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy

Wordsworth is subtle when it comes to representing Betty’s dialect. At one point in the poem Betty comments that her son is “not so wise as some folks be” where ending with the verb ‘be’ is done to facilitate a rhyme with the last line of the previous stanza: “him you often see.” But the verb-ending sentence has, what Wordsworth might have considered, a ‘provincial’ feel about it. It has the grammar of certain English dialects, and because we know this is country-maid Betty’s voice, the ‘be’ and also the ‘him you see’, where the pronoun comes first, is made to sound almost clumsy.

The 14th stanza includes this bit: “And Betty’s most especial charge, / Was, ‘Johnny! Johnny! mind that you / Come home again, nor stop at all, / Come home again, whate’er befal, / My Johnny do, I pray you do.” This passage feels like a country song, or nursery rhyme. The line “come home again” acts like a refrain, and the repetition of “do” in the last line punctuates it with the cadences of song. It is formed like the kind of poem or song that Betty herself would sing/recite. Again we come across the idea that there is something poetic in the music of the most average person. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the point examiners are looking for. Maybe.


Finally, onto the ‘mock-heroic’ aspect of the poem. Betty cries out, with plenty of melodrama, “O woe is me! O woe is me!” She has a lot of these hackneyed theatrics at hand. Her preoccupation with the sense of her own tragedy, does feel like it’s intended to be funny: “The piteous news so much it shock’d her, / She quite forgot to send the Doctor”. Betty, the much-put-upon heroine, hurries past the pond in case, redolent of Ophelia, she should drown herself in despair.


Here is where you COULD, if you were feeling pretty kooky, turn the whole question of ‘character’ upside down. Why does Wordsworth spend so long developing a character, so that she becomes a ‘familiar’ person, only to then load up literary cliches that take away some of the ‘depth’ or ‘reality’ of a character? Is this because the only way we can perceive ‘character’ in a literary text is through recognisable formulas and repeated stereotypes?  HOLD ON A MINUTE. Is Wordsworth developing a character that works, indirectly, to question the very concept of character?

A lot of analysis out there of this poem paints Betty Foy as a romantic figure representing high ideals. But why, then, does she often perform as a figure of ridicule? Wordsworth’s tone frequently borders on disdainful. And here we arrive at one of the major unresolved tensions of the whole Lyrical Ballads collection. Just how warmly does Wordsworth feel towards his working-class heroes?


He is JUST as stressed about it as you are

There are an unlimited number of things to talk about when it comes to Wordsworth. If you want to read blog posts written by people who actually do know what they’re talking about, then I suggest you go here and here!

Read Full Post »