Archive for the ‘Wordsworth’ Category

On Sunday morning I found myself tutting over Michael Gove, who with his thick-rimmed indie spectacles bobbing up and down on the screen, was expostulating against the use of Mr Men characters to help explain Nazi history. How awful! Cartoon characters desecrating the reign of Hitler!

But then, six minutes in, I found myself nodding in assent. This took me by surprise.

Gove wants you to read Middlemarch, rather than Twilight. But actually, he says, he’s just happy if people are reading.

“There’s been an assumption that books like Middlemarch, or plays by Shakespeare, or poems by Keats or Wordsworth, are only ever accessible to a minority, to a gilded elite. I think that’s wrong.”

Thank you for your wise words, Minister.

It really is a valuable philosophy and one that all students of literature should remember. It’s a case of approaching works like this fearlessly, facing them head-on and making them your own. You are the poets, just as much as the poet.

It’s just a shame it came in the middle of a speech about greatness, where I’m confident I know exactly who he was thinking of…

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference

I promise to post something a bit more helpful very soon.



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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.

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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!

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