I do prophesy th’ election lights …

… “on Fortinbras”, says Hamlet. A victory for the strong-arm man. I happen to be teaching Hamlet this week, a play very interested in succession and election. Also, though, a play in which people lie a lot. One thing that strikes me about the current election is the huge discrepancy between nearly all the opinion polls and the result. Exactly as in the 2015 Conservative victory in the UK, 2016 Brexit and 2016 Trump. It’s not my field of expertise, but this further debacle for the polling industry does suggest to me that there is a fundamental problem with the social science model of human behaviour, in which statistics, surveys and mathematical projections are used to make predictions. It was striking that the only pollster to go against the grain, in 2020 as well as 2016, was Robert Cahaly of The Trafalgar Group, who said that the premise of his methodology is that “people lie all the time”. Which they – or at least Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – do in Hamlet.

Was it not self-evident that Trumpists, who are predominantly non-college-educated and almost entirely suspicious-of-“mainstream”-media, would either lie or refuse to answer when confronted with an orthodox poll that (a) used the social science model that comes out of college education, and (b) would be reported in, and therefore associated with, the mainstream media? Shouldn’t it be obvious by now that people act more on the basis of emotion than reason and that a “rational”, quasi-scientific methodology is a hopelessly inadequate way of predicting human behaviour? As so often, the humanities – the lessons of history, the thought experiments of Shakespeare – offer a far more useful predictive tool than the social sciences.

What we need next time around is a new opinion polling model based on Shakespearean as opposed to statistical principles!

Late Wordsworth

Now that my biography of Wordsworth is at press – coming out in early April in the UK and late April in USA – I’m reflecting on what I put in and what I left out. Most of what I left out was the second half of his life and thus pretty well all his later work. I’m intrigued and slightly amused that this means that for a second time around I find myself at odds with the flow of mainstream Wordsworth/Romanticism studies. That is to say, back in the late 1980s all the “new historicists” were berating Wordsworth for his political turn away from the values of the French Revolution (hardly surprising, in my view, given that his lover was in the royalist resistance and his friend Gorsas was one of the first to be guillotined by the Jacobins); I argued, then, by contrast, that there was a direct line from his early radical politics to the “green” thinking of the Guide to the Lakes, parts of The Excursion and thus his influence on John Ruskin’s ideas in the Victorian period about how urbanization and industrialization were causing climate change. That was the thrust of my little polemic, very much of its time, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition.

This time around, I began research for my biography by re-reading the entirety of Wordsworth’s works in chronological order. And I came to the conclusion that the idea first promulgated by Matthew Arnold was absolutely right: almost all the good work was written in the “great decade” between 1797 and 1806 (which happened to coincide with his closeness to Coleridge). I argue in the biography that the surest test of a worthwhile poem is its memorability. Despite immersing myself in Wordsworth throughout the five years since I said goodbye to Ted Hughes, I cannot hold in my memory a single line from the early Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, or any of the later poems apart “Surprised by Joy” and a few lines in the River Duddon sonnets and the Extempore Effusion on the Death of James Hogg. As I point out in the biography, these also happen to be the only later poems that Seamus Heaney – as fine a judge of poetry as he was a poet – included in his excellent Wordsworth anthology.

And yet, reading the academic criticism about Wordsworth written in the last decade, everybody seems to be speaking up for the later poems – to take two fine examples, Tim Fulford and the emphasis in Katherine Berggren’s fascinating account of Wordsworth’s global and in particular post-colonial influence. So once again, I find myself swimming against the tide…

Maybe, though, it is a question of audiences: work on the later Wordsworth keeps the conversation going within the professional sphere of Romantic studies, but, as in most of my work in the past thirty years, I am more interested in (a) getting students who don’t know any of the poetry to explore, enjoy, and be educated by the Romantics (Latin e-ducere, to lead out from the self … in Wordsworth’s case by witnessing someone else go into the self with unprecedented depth); and (b) speaking to that huge audience of, to use Dr Johnson’s and Virginia Woolf’s still valuable term, “common readers” who are compelled by the fascinating lives and historical contexts of the poets.

For these two audiences, I stand by my decision to cut short the biography (which was already long enough, because it includes a lot of quotation, criticism and context) when Wordsworth’s life became boring and his poetry became unmemorable. But I know what the response will be within the groves of academe …

O, and on the subject of leaving things out: yes, it was deliberate that there is no mention of Daffodils in my three BBC Radio 4 documentaries for the 250th anniversary, In Wordsworth’s Footsteps.

L’esprit de l’escalier

En route to the Hay Festival to talk about How the Classics made Shakespeare, I flick through the book and reflect on what I left out that I meant to put in, but never got around to, because delivery was late and I just had to get it done and move onto the next thing – all writers know that feeling. One of the points I made in the book is that when we talk about Shakespeare and the classics we immediately think of the Roman plays based on Plutarch, together with Titus Andronicus, but that in fact thirteen of Shakespeare’s forty or so works are set in the ancient world, not to mention that even the ones with settings more modern than antique are steeped in allusion to classical stories (the Pyrrhus speech in Hamlet is at the core of the book). So the book has a good deal to say about the two narrative poems, and about The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline as well as the obvious candidates Julius CaesarAntony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of AthensTroilus and Cressida is also very important to the argument, but on reflection I think that my treatment of it was somewhat scattered and elliptical. Perhaps I should have had a more concentrated section on Shakespeare and Troy – but then I would merely have been going over the same ground as that covered by Heather James in her admirable Shakespeare’s Troy. No, my real regret is not the attenuated treatment of Troilus but the scant attention I gave to Shakespeare’s final return to classical matter: The Two Noble Kinsmen,a play of which I have been inordinately fond ever since I directed a terrible undergraduate production of it forty years ago. So next time someone invites me to do a special Shakespeare lecture, it will be on Kinsmen

Armistice Centenary

Last night in the chapel of Worcester College Oxford we held our annual service of Remembrance. This is a tradition in which I read out the Roll of Honour, the names of the members of the College who fell in the two world wars, and then the Last Post is sounded and we keep two minutes’ silence. It was especially moving this year, being the exact centenary of the signature of the Armistice at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The ever-excellent choir began with Douglas Guest’s haunting setting of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen“. Joining us in a packed chapel were the great-nephew of a College member, Lieutenant Charles Saunders, and the granddaughter and great-grandson of another, Lionel Beach, who both died in the Great War.

During those two minutes’ silence, I also thought of the poets who died — Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Charles Sorley. Of Ivor Gurney, who never really recovered from his shell shock. And of the way in which literature helped to shape the response to the war: the previous night, our student drama society staged a terrific production of Journey’s End in a local church. That play, together with the growing influence of the poetry of Owen and Sassoon, and the novels and memoirs of the war — such as Graves’s Goodbye to all That and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, with its elegiac closing image of a veteran playing the Last Post as if bidding farewell to all the old codes of patriotism — effected a huge cultural shift. The best treatment of all this remains Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, surely one of the twentieth-century’s finest works of literary scholarship.

At the end of four years’ remembrance of 1914-1918, I thought it would be worth preserving — mostly for the benefit of College alumni — the sermon that I preached on the same occasion back in 2014. Here is a link:

Remembrance Sermon 2014

The Letters of Sylvia Plath

My review of volume one of Sylvia Plath’s letters will be in The Times on Saturday. I decided to say very little about her relationship with Ted Hughes, mainly because she doesn’t meet him for the first eleven hundred pages of the book, but also because I wanted to give a flavour of the full range of her voices, and not focus on the love letters that were extracted in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday.

But I have inevitably been asked whether this new volume contains material that I would have wished to include in my biography of TH. I was aware of the batch of October 1956 love letters in the possession of Frieda Hughes: very understandably, she did not want me to quote from them prior to their publication in full in this edition, though I was able to give a flavor of them from the one published in Frieda’s edition of Sylvia Plath: Drawings. The other thing I was aware of, but did not write about at length because of the limitations on substantial illustrative quotation from unpublished materials, was the extent of cutting within the letters published in Aurelia Plath’s edition of the Letters Home. Now that the full texts are in print, discussion can begin of whether it was modesty, anxiety or simply a desire for privacy that led to the exclusion of passages such as the following from Sylvia’s letter of 23 April 1956 to her brother Warren Plath, which in Letters Home has a lengthy ellipsis immediately after “his name is Ted Hughes”:

He is tall, hulking, with rough brown hair, a large-cut face, hands like derricks, a voice more thundering and rich than Dylan Thomas, a force that breaks windows when he stalks into a room, half-Irish and half-French with a gift for story-telling that spellbinds; he writes poetry that masters form, bangs and smashes through speech to go better than Yeats, better than Hopkins at his best: none of this pale niggling cerebralizing. We are both strong and healthy as blazes. He throws the discus, hunts, shoots, plows, grafts roses, writes for film studios, knows the name of every bird and beast hopping over the moors: I am learning a new vocabulary from him. He hikes into the room, yanks out Chaucer or Shakespeare or Hopkins or Blake and begins to read in a voice that shakes the house. We walked 15 miles the other day, yelling poetry and words and stories at each other. He has done nothing but write, rave, work and desert women for 10 years (graduated from Cambridge two years ago) and is the most brilliant, creative, and violently strong man I have ever met. All this, because I had to tell someone; my poetry, my words, my eyes are sprouting like the bay tree; I am learning about coots and stoats and moles and Cuchulain and Snatchcraftington, one of his fairytale wizards with a face like a rhubarb-leaf!

I cook trout and steak in my room, learn poems, read aloud, find owls and hares which come when he whistles; he is rough, rugged: has worn the same thick black sweater & khaki pants for two months I’ve known him. What, you say, is the catch? The catch is that he has never thought about anything or anyone except himself and his will (but for a few men friends) and has done a kind of uncaring rip through every woman he’s ever met. I am the first one, I think, who is as strong in herself (by this I mean, the sense of self which is inviolable & creative in spite of all) as he is, who can see the lack of care in him, and be independent: this gives me a kind of a balance of power. I could make him kind, I think, and a little more caring of people; but I know [t]hat I shall never again find his like in the world. Such times we have. I would give everything if you could meet him; never have two people, too strong for most in one dose, lived so powerfully & creatively!

All this, by way of the joy I live in.

(The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956, ed. Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, Faber and Faber, 2017, pp. 1173-4.)

God, that woman could write prose! And that is a passage I would have liked to include.

Ted Hughes, Marlowe & Shakespeare

I promise that this blog will not develop into a forum for refutation of the “anti-Stratfordians” but, as with my post earlier today about early pilgrims to Shakespeare’s Stratford monument between 1618 and the early 1630s, I must correct a false aspersion cast at last night’s lively How To: Academy Authorship Debate. Someone said “Ted Hughes didn’t believe the man from Stratford wrote the plays – funny that you didn’t mention that in your biography of him.” Well, unless I missed something in the thousands of pages of letters and critical prose which I spent five archival years examining, I didn’t mention it because it isn’t true. Indeed, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, a book that, for all its excesses and eccentricities, I admire far more now than I did when it first came out in 1992, he makes much of Shakespeare’s rural origins, butcher’s son etc. etc.

So where has the idea come from? A single remark in an early letter to his Cambridge friend Lucas Myers: “The way to really develope as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare.” (Letters, ed. Reid, p. 120). Quoted out of context, this might appear to make Ted Hughes a subscriber to the fantasy that Marlowe didn’t die in Deptford, but escaped to Italy from where he sent his plays back to be performed and published with Shakespeare as the front man. But look at the context:

The way to really develope as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare. Think what a precise detachment this would give to all your observations – at the same time making all your life, and the only possible life, inward. This is how Dante developed into Dante, & Joyce into Joyce. The other way is to go deaf.

What Hughes meant was that Marlowe’s problem was that his political engagement (spying, professed atheism) led to his premature demise, and that Shakespeare learned from this an art of detachment – of what Joyce would have called silence, cunning and exile. By learning from the negative example of Marlowe, Shakespeare protected himself and devoted himself to his art, always hiding in the shadows. Unlike nearly all his fellow-dramatists, he was never imprisoned or censured or had a play banned after a couple of performances. No Isle of Dogs, Tragedy of Gowrie or Game at Chess for him. At the same time, Hughes is arguing – and he would develop the thought further in Goddess – that “Marlowe developed into Shakespeare” in the sense that Richard II was a response to Edward II, Merchant of Venice to Jew of Malta, The Tempest to Faustus. His gnomic remark is in fact a crystallized anticipation, 35 years early, of the argument of “Marlowe’s Ghost”, the essay that won the Calvin Hoffman Prize and was then developed into Chapter 4 of my The Genius of Shakespeare. Hughes and I both believe that Marlowe’s ghost stalks the plays of Shakespeare – but metaphorically, as literary and theatrical influence, not literally.

The combination of quoting out of context and reading against the grain of the text is, of course, typical of anti-Stratfordian method.

But of course if someone has another source revealing that Hughes really did believe the Marlowe-was-Shakespeare theory, I’d be glad to hear of it. Old Ted did sometimes go for unusual theories …

And it’s so endearing that, despite his Cambridge degree, he couldn’t spell “develop”.

References for Mr Waugh!

A jolly evening at the How To: Academy debating the identity of Shakespeare with my dear friend Alexander Waugh. I don’t think I’m ever going to change the mind of someone whose argument appears to rest on the proposition that Ben Jonson faked Heminge’ and Condell’s dedictory epistle and address to the reader in the First Folio, in which they clearly ascribe the plays to their fellow-actor – and who, for good measure, suggests that the bequest of mourning rings to Hemmings, Condell and Burbage in Shakespeare’s will might be a forged interpolation. But I enormously admire Alexander’s wit, warmth and energy. The only moment he lost his cool was when I denied his claim that nobody in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s death made the association between “the man from Stratford” and the famous writer. He said “You can’t make things up, Jonathan.” I told him I would send him some references, and he asked for them to be on his desk “by 9 o’clock in the morning” – so they will be, but here they are for any members of the audience who remain curious:

1618: Weever’s notebook (Society of Antiquaries MS 127) – transcription of the words on the Stratford monument and the poem on the tomb. In margin opposite heading “Stratford upon Avon”: “Willm Shakespeare the famous poet”

1619: Basse poem (Lansdowne MS 777, f.67v): “Under this carved marble of thine owne / Sleep rare Tragedian Shakespeare, sleep alone”

1623: Digges poem in First Folio: ‘thy works, by which, outlive / Thy tomb, thy name must: when that stone is rent, / And time dissolves thy Stratford Monument’.

Late 1620s: manuscript addition to a copy of the First Folio (Folger 26): Transcription of the poem on the tombstone + the poem on the Stratford monument + an original poem:

Here Shakespeare lies whom none but death could Shake / And here shall lie till judgment all awake; / When the last trumpet doth unclose his eyes / The wittiest poet in the world shall rise.

1630, A Banquet (anon): “on travelling through Stratford upon Avon, a town most remarkable for the birth of famous William Shakespeare”

1634 Lieutenant Hammond diary reference (Lansdowne MS 213, f. 332v): “we came by Stratford upon Avon … in the church there are some monuments … those worth observing … a neat Monument of that famous English Poet, Mr William Shakespeare, who was born here.”




On Plagiarism in Poetry

A very interesting article in today’s Guardian about poetry and plagiarism. When T. S. Eliot famously said that immature poets imitate but mature poets steal, he did not mean “Find someone else’s poem online, change a handful of words and pass it off as your own, trading not only on their words but even on their chosen crafted form.” But what did he mean? One way in which I start a discussion of this question with students is to suggest to them that when one says “I love you” one is at some level voicing a quotation, not an original thought. By “quoting” in this way, you are entering into a long tradition – of lovers. Eliot’s point was that it is by engaging with the tradition, “modifying the existing order,” that poets enter the “canon” (though, as I argue in my book English Literature: A Very Short Introduction, I much prefer the term “repertoire”). The individual talent is shaped by the tradition and the true talent in turn reshapes the tradition. That is one reason why Eliot’s own poetry is so peppered with allusion, quotation and free translation from the poets he admired.

I’ve been fascinated by the implications of all this ever since I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence and responded to it with a PhD thesis (which became two books) on how the Romantic poets dealt with their obsessive admiration for Shakespeare. My attempt at a “re-creative” exploration of the subject was the novel The Cure for Love, an act of homage to William Hazlitt that took his habit of quotation as its starting point. It imagines a man with a photographic memory who has read the whole of Hazlitt having an accident that gives him amnesia, with the result that when he recovers his memory his own words and experiences are indistinguishable from Hazlitt’s. This was intended as a kind of allegory of the process whereby the words of the writers we love lodge themselves in our head and speak to – even shape – our own experiences.

Now something along these lines might be imagined as the plagiarist’s defence: “this poem spoke to me, so I made it my own.” Yes, but … There are honourable and time-honoured methods of performing the move of making someone else’s creativity your own, and good words for the techniques of doing so: translation and imitation; quotation and allusion; hommage, pastiche and cento. My poetry collection The Shepherd’s Hut embraces them all (well, nearly all – I actually left out a cento that spliced e.e.cummings with Robert Lowell under the title “From Two Muses for a Third”). But the defining characteristic is that, either explicitly (e.g. in a title, an overt reference, an Eliot-style source note) or implicitly (by way of a quotation mark, a clear indication of change of register) they acknowledge the dialogue with the previous poet – the dialogue is indeed an essential part of the poem’s being and meaning. The reader is supposed to make the connection. Eliot should have said that poets steal proudly, generously and openly. It is unacknowledged literary theft that constitutes plagiarism.

Mind you, the earliest reference to Shakespeare seems to accuse him of plagiarism: the “upstart crow” is an allusion not only to a fable of Aesop, but also to a passage in Horace about bad poets passing off other poets’ words as their own … but the controversy around the authorship and intent of that allusion is a story for another day …

On Biography: archive or interview?

One of the pleasures of being a biographer living with a biographer is that you spend a lot of time talking – often arguing – about the art of biography. Tonight it went like this:

Her: Looking back on the Ted Hughes experience, don’t you regret the extent to which you relied on interviews? All memories are fallible – and you kept finding that different people remember the same events in different ways.

Me: Granted, but it’s really important to get all the memories down before people die or lose their memories altogether.

Her: Stick to the archive, I say.

Me: I did spend five years in the archive, as you know. Besides, look at the history of biography: it all kicked off at the end of the eighteenth century when Boswell wrote the life of Johnson and Hayley the life of Cowper. One based on interviews and reminiscences, the other on manuscripts and letters. Which one do we still read today?

Her: Boswell, of course – but he was actually there in the room, recording Johnson’s words. That’s not like a biographer going to some elderly bit part player and asking them to remember what happened fifty years earlier. Listen, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why did I write my biography of the amazing story of Kick Kennedy and how she nearly became Duchess of Devonshire?

Me: You told me that it was because you found her a completely fascinating, charismatic woman.

Her: Exactly. And how do I know she was like that? Not just from what people said about her, but by getting under her skin – reading two thousand pages of her manuscript letters and diaries, leafing through her scrapbooks, reanimating her voice on the page.

Me: But surely there’s a place for interviews – I’ve always loved that book called His Very Self and Voice, which gathers together all the extant conversations of Lord Byron.

Her: You can’t seriously believe those conversations are verbatim. There’s bound to be loads of embellishment. Stick to Byron’s letters, Jonathan, when you write your book about the Romantics. Listen, a woman called Lynne McTaggart wrote a biography of Kick Kennedy over thirty years ago. It was based entirely on interviews because the archive had not been released at that time. I’m certainly glad she wrote it. It’s got some great material in it, but loads of errors as a result of people’s faulty memories. It certainly wouldn’t be worth doing another interview-based biography now, but the material in the archive is so rich that there’s a real opportunity to bring Kick’s voice back to life – that’s what biography is all about.

Me: I grant you that – and of course you’re right that the archive doesn’t lie. I know how satisfying you found it to discover that Regimental Diary which showed that everybody had got a key detail wrong.

Her: I win. I mean, it was those unknown diaries, not anything from an interview, that really excited you when you were writing Ted.

Me: I’ll win the next argument.

Oxford Literary Festival

My two events at the Oxford Literary Festival: details here. Delighted to see that Ian McKellen and I have sold out the Sheldonian. Entirely due to him, of course.

I’m also chairing Frieda Hughes on her new poems and paintings: details here.

Upcoming literary festivals where I am talking about Ted: Stratford-upon-Avon, Charleston.

Upcoming Shakespeare talks, for the 400th: Senate House London, Oxford, Hay, Althorp.

I’ll try and get a calendar onto the sidebar of the website.