Posts Tagged ‘WJEC’

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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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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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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Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is not a poem.

But I wanted to write about it because 1) so many schools doing the WJEC board do it for A Level 2) I am nostalgically looking over the notes I made for it when I did my A Level and 3) people often assume that the prose passages in plays do not require the kind of analysis and close-reading you would give to a poem.

You can tear apart prose as much as you would a poem. Be just as creative with it. Even stage directions are falling over themselves to hand you good essay points. Especially Miller’s stage directions.

I want to look at the very end of Death of a Salesman – Linda’s farewell speech to Willy. It is tragic, despairing – but ambiguous. Is it happy or sad? I don’t know! Let us see, shall we!

“Linda: I’ll be with you in a minute. Go on, Charley. (He hesitates.) I want to, just for a minute. I never had a chance to say good-bye.

Charley moves away, followed by Happy. Biff remains a slight distance up and left of Linda. She sits there, summoning herself. The flute begins, not far away, playing behind her speech.

Linda: Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you, Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. (A sob rises in her throat.) We’re free and clear. (Sobbing more fully, released.) We’re free. (Biff comes slowly towards her). We’re free… We’re free.”

So the Loman family are at Willy’s funeral. And nobody has turned up. This passage is often interpreted as a final note from Miller on the frustrating, and endless disappointment of life in a capitalist society – on the brutal pointlessness of Willy’s death, and the emptiness he has left behind. But there is something equally uplifting about this final speech, and it can be found in very small touches.

  1. Look at words like “summoning” and “released” in the stage directions. Combine this with the ethereal sound of the flute in the background, the word “free”, and that ellipsis (the ‘…’) right at the end. They make this conclusion strangely spiritual – definitely not the feel of everything that has come before.
  2. The flute: this music keeps drifting on stage at significant points during the play. It opens the play, described as “small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.” It is immediately something otherworldly, transcending the ugly tower-blocks that form the backdrop to the play. It speaks of dreams not yet realised; a sad reminder of the distant world outside the Loman family. But it is not completely hopeless. At other points in the play, it appears when Willy recalls a happy memory. Therefore there is always a kind of sweet sadness attached to the sound of the flute, and it is that tension that is reproduced here at the end: Linda’s regret at losing Willy mingled with a sense of freedom that the burden of loving, and pitying, and caring for Willy, has evaporated. 
  3. In this way, “summoning” and “released” are fitting descriptions for Linda here. ‘Summoning herself’ is Linda attempting to gain self-control, but ‘summoning’ can easily suggest the summoning of spirits – of a ghostly Willy figure that Linda must let go of. Here is the crunch of the passage – the final confrontation with an invisible, but tangible Willy figure, and the friction this creates. This  forms the top of the speech, where Linda insists, again and again, on her inability to cry. We are “free and clear” she says, where ‘clear’ is a financial term referring to the final payment on the house. But then the passage slips quietly into a new mood. Linda drops the word ‘clear’, and suddenly they are simply ‘free’. The ‘we’ seems no longer to include Willy, but instead the new Loman unit – Linda, Biff and Happy – however disjointed a unit they may remain. And now the tears come easily! She is “released.” Willy’s death could be seen as solving more problems than he is given credit for.
  4. If you ever see an ellipsis in ANYTHING I would jump straight on it. Why would a writer need to use three full stops in a row? It’s got past an editor for a reason. Ellipses create space. They really stretch out and open up a sentence. “We’re free… we’re free.” It’s like it marks the passing of Willy, easing away gently.  Or it’s a breath – of relief, or of satisfaction.

Look! So many possibilities! Who knows what the real answer is!

Also the 1985 film of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman playing Willy is good. It’s all over YouTube.

Curtain. x

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Guess whose lovely long locks earned him the nickname ‘The Lady’?

Back in the yonder years of my degree, I once remarked that Milton’s Paradise Lost felt really ‘cinematic’ at times and should be made into a film. Oh how they laughed! Seventeenth century Milton on FILM? they said, you must be JOKING they said. Ha ha, I said, I was only joking. Obviously.

But ALAS, imagine my elation, shared by nobody, when a few weeks later I read that Paradise Lost was actually being made into a real life film, starring real life actors, with BRADLEY COOPER as Satan.


I scorned all those non-believers! Bradley Cooper and I share the same artistic vision, I cried, and nobody gets us!

(A few weeks later it turned out that the film was being pulled because of a lack of funding. The dream is dead.)

By ‘cinematic’ I mean visual, atmospheric, colourful, panoramic – loaded with sequences that run as if being shot for film. See if you agree with me.

(Also, Milton is what you would call ‘syntactically complex’. The language is difficult because the sentences are long – very long. Numerous phrases are jammed into what is technically one sentence so it can be hard to keep up. I talked about how to break down these sentences in my post about Keats, which might be useful here.)


I’ve picked out two of my favourite descriptive passages. The first one comes from Book IX and is just after Eve has eaten the apple. This section is powerfully atmospheric. It is a seismic, tragic moment in the poem; as paradise literally crumbles away, the entire scene is overcome with apocalyptic darkness. And oppressive awareness of the irrevocable. Let me throw even more words at you! We can really feel the whole earth shifting as Adam and Eve fall inescapably into sin. Here it is:

“She gave him of that fair enticing fruit

With liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat

Against his better knowledge, not deceived,

But fondly overcome with female charm.

Earth trembled from her entrails, as again

In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan;

Sky loured, and muttering thunder, some sad drops

Wept at completing of the mortal sin

Original; while Adam took no thought,

Eating his fill, nor Eve to iterate

Her former trespass feared, the more to soothe

Him with her loved society, that now 

As with new wine intoxicated both

They swim in mirth, and fancy that they feel

Divinity within them breeding wings.” 

1) Look at how bodily the ‘earth’ becomes. Not only is it feminised with the feminine pronoun ‘her’, but “entrails” paired with “pangs” in the next line is enough to suggest that we are speaking of the womb of the earth. But it goes further than ‘womb’; “entrails” is the gut, the innermost parts, repulsive when exposed. Earth, like Adam and Eve, is slashed open – bared and stark.

2) It is almost as if the earth shares in Eve’s newly spoiled womanhood. The phrase “in pangs”, certainly in the context Milton places it, seems to mean labour pains. Next to “entrails” and “groan” later in the line, we get the feeling that earth is literally giving birth to a new kind of existence. This foreshadows the pronouncement from God that we are about to get in Book X, where He tells Eve “children thou shalt bring / In sorrow forth.” Her punishment is explicitly pain during labour. Paradise Lost is saturated with this kind of birthing imagery; think of all the incestuous pregnancies of Sin. Impregnation and expulsion are generally negative images for Milton. Not completely sure why. I will leave that to the psychoanalysts.

3) The language of proliferation also has unusually bad vibes for Milton. Adam and Eve’s false sense of joy is said to be “breeding” within them. You can almost hear Milton’s tone of disgust. Now that the forbidden apple has been eaten, sin multiplies uncontrollably, reproducing itself over and over. It is this lack of control that makes Milton shudder. On the theme of corruption, he describes how the two are “with new wine intoxicated.” Now they consume fermented fruit – degraded forms of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Heady Adam and Eve have lost self-control; the solidity of the scene slips away and the downfall has begun. That might feel like I’m pushing it too far but I promise that you can never push it FAR ENOUGH.

I think this passage (there is a lot more if you go back to this part in the poem) feels like the sign of impending tragedy in a disaster movie – in my Paradise Lost film that never was – where forces act unstoppably and humans are powerless to stop them.


In mine and Bradley’s hypothetical Hollywood movie, this is the bit where the bad guys get their comeuppance. Here the devils merrily convene with Satan post-apple-gate only to be turned into serpents no thanks to God.

“So having said, a while he stood, expecting

Their universal shout and high applause

To fill his ear, when contrary he hears

On all sides, from innumerable tongues

A dismal universal hiss, the sound

Of public scorn; he wondered, but not long

Had leisure, wond’ring at himself now more;

His visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,

His arms clung to his ribs, his legs entwining

Each other, till supplanted down he fell

A monstrous serpent on his belly prone,

Reluctant, but in vain; a greater power

Now ruled him, punished in the shape he sinned”

Important here is Milton’s sense of noise and movement. His brain seems to work pictorially – as in, what words will convey with the most realness and vividness the picture I have in my brain? He really helps us visualise the scene.

1) SOUND: Just as Milton is describing the voice of the serpent crowd, he throws in a surge of S sounds: ‘dismal universal hiss‘. Sounds like a snake. Pretty sneaky huh.

2) MOVEMENT: First we get one action – Satan’s transmutation – broken up into mini close ups: “arms clung to his ribs”, “legs entwining”, “down he fell.” Then Milton sweeps back outwards to take in the whole picture: “dreadful was the din / Of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now / With complicated monsters.” The two combined really pad out the scene. It is all packaged and ready for a film-maker’s storyboard.

Dear Hollywood director, please recommission Paradise Lost. It could be so good! Or really bad.


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You might hear people talking about the ‘biography’ of the poet, or the ‘biographical context’ of the poem. This means personal stuff about the poet’s life that could have influenced their writing in some way. There are plenty of arguments put forward for the need to understand the psychology of a poet before you can fully understand their poetry. I’m not completely sure how true that is; I think you can do a lot with just the language. But where they come from, when they come from, and then your own guesses as to why they write poetry, are undeniably important. Take time to read up on a poet. I highly recommend a speedy browse of Wikipedia at the very least.  If you can demonstrate awareness of the period in which a poet writes, and the factors that might have compelled them to write, then I guarantee your answer will be better. Be as comprehensive as possible. Your analysis of the language will be authoritative if propped up with some nice history. Just don’t let it take over an answer. You are not writing a history essay.

If you have a few minutes, why not get some facts together and make a video like me to celebrate your favourite poet? What do you mean ‘that’s WEIRD’? That’s what all the kids are doing these days!

Making learning fun, friends.

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