Posts Tagged ‘English Literature’

Konichiwa bloggits!

Close-reading poetry is about tearing language apart. You have to barbarically cut up a poem and inspect its tiny pieces. Then, when satisfied, you slot them all together and kick back.

You can do this with ANYTHING.

If you don’t believe me, read this.

This blog, Verbatimlooks for poetry in places you wouldn’t expect it. It catches the poetry of the everyday, in signs, or phone conversations, or comments on an internet forum. Repetition, patterns, and words that sound strange in a certain context are often the features that transform ordinary language into the poetic. There’s no obvious line between what counts as poetry and what doesn’t. It’s up to YOU to decide!

This is my favourite from the blog:

I mean I actually have to
send him a link 
to the thing I want.

I mean I would almost
rather him not buy anything for me…
because he just goes
and buys me something

really SHIT. And he’s started being
really funny about it, like now
he buys me something
and says I probably won’t like it

even before I unwrap it. And I
just said to him that it’s better for me
to SAY I don’t like it and take it back,
than to pretend. And

I must have mentioned like
twice a day that I want
some stacking rings. But he
sees that as like an engagement ring,

like I’d MARRY him
for Christ’s sake. I mean if I want
to find out what HE wants
I would ask his friends.

Why doesn’t he do that? Oh, and then
he goes online to Sophie
to ask what I want
and she tells him that I want

some black jeans and this poster
I linked to on Facebook, and he
just didn’t pay ANY ATTENTION to her…
Yes but I shouldn’t have to say

what I want.

Taken from a phone conversation overheard on the train from London to Pewsey, 4.36pm, December 19th. 

Extempore poetry. Excellent.



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Happy New Year!

Chaucer, in the style of Bill Bailey. See, it isn’t that hard to understand!

What are the most typically Chaucerian features Bill Bailey picks up on and exaggerates?

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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*

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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

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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

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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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I have been meaning to throw events at you for a while.

I have said it here and here, but I cannot recommend going to see adaptations of works you’re studying enough. Do it! Get your school to pay! (If that’s how it works.)

For all Shakespeare events going on in Cardiff, this blog is indispensable. It’s also full of interesting articles that are worth reading if you have time.


Richard Burton on the set of Under Milk Wood

In just under two weeks, Chapter Arts Centre is screening the first ever adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton. The film’s director, Andrew Sinclair, will be there to answer questions. This is such a good opportunity – definitely try and go! Here’s the facebook page with more information.


Llandaff Musical Society are taking on Charles Dickens’s Christmas story Pickwick, based on his Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. For any students studying Dickens, consume as much as you can! Overload yourself with Dickens! Get totally Dickensed. Information is here.


BLOOD BROTHERS! IN FEBRUARY! IN CARDIFF! Lots of schools study this for GCSE so plan ahead and get it booked. For more information click here.


Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong isn’t on the WJEC syllabus but I read it this summer and I did a post on it so I’m selfishly including it here. I’m really interested to see how this works on stage. The BBC reworked it for TV only last year so there are plenty of adaptations out there for you to compare and contrast. It also links well with the World War I poetry some schools look at for GCSE. Book your tickets here.


Can you believe it! Another WJEC text on stage at the New Theatre! Unbelievable scenes! Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been turned into a ballet. Admittedly, this won’t be useful if you wanted to digest Fitzgerald’s words, but it’s always exciting when a text gets translated into a medium you did not expect. And if you’re really desperate for some words, Baz Luhrmann has only gone and done a Hollywood film for you. It could not be easier to get out and experience the texts you come across in the classroom.

Happy watching! x

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