Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

41: The War Poems by Wilfred Owen

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 07/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

war-poems-by-wilfred-owenIn late December 1912, following his matriculation, Wilfred Owen was offered a post as lay assistant to a clergyman, which he turned down. Owen had decided to move away from his evangelical roots, swapping his religious studies for deep readings of Keats manuscripts at the British Museum. Drawing on his knowledge of the biblical and classical genres, he begun to compose poetry with a heavy Keats influence; travelling to France where he held a position at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux. On the year of his twenty-first birthday, war was declared and Owen carried on teaching privately for a while. On November the 15th 1915, he joined the Artists’ Rifles and became a British Army officer.

The story of what happened to Owen during the war has been made familiar by Pat Barker’s excellent novel Regeneration, which deals with the conversations Owen had with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Both poets were treated for shell shock — having faced the dirt, stink and horror of the trenches — and soon became friends through their shared love of poetry. Sassoon was already a well connected writer, and introduced Owen to Robert Graves, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. With his friend’s help and encouragement, Owen received critical acclaim as a Georgian war poet. On June the 4th 1918, he was graded fit for general service. He was killed early in the morning on November the 4th. The armistice was signed on the 11th.

This book is the best way to enjoy and study the poetry of Wilfred Owen that I have come across. Jon Stallworthy has done a consummate job, selecting the very best of the poet’s work and providing an excellent introduction. Each poem is accompanied by scholarly notes for budding and experienced essayists alike; and Owen’s famous preface — ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war’ (pp.98) — is included as a coda.

Highly recommended.

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38: Byron by Elizabeth Longford

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 16/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

byron-by-elizabeth-longfordIn his own lifetime, Lord Byron was almost as famous as Napoleon, after bursting into the literary limelight in 1812 with an epic poem about a self-outcast romantic hero. The poem in question Childe Harold would cement Byron’s reputation for creating dark, dangerous and devilishly exciting central characters — the original Byronic heroes of the literary world. Byron traveled the world in style, forged many promiscuous relationships with both sexes along the way, and fostered a controversial public image within the newspapers. Poet’s were the pop stars of their day, and Byron was to become one of the first international celebrities of the modern era. It would be right to compare his popularity to Micheal Jackson’s, another controversial figure living within a celebrity bubble. But the fact that Byron’s poetry is still appreciated by English Literature scholars has nothing to do with this fame. The poems themselves are brightly lit with clever rhyming and encompass an expansive range of subjects, precariously balancing between the biographically personal and the satirically political.

Published in 1976, this highly readable biography is well known amongst Byron scholars. Elizabeth Longford does a very good job of gathering together the various letters, corespondents and previous biographies surrounding the Byron myth. In chronological order, Longford occasionally dips into the poetry itself to add to her biography of the famous romantic poet — which will please English students. Over the years, however, Longford has been criticized for inaccuracies concerning the number of books Byron’s publishers actually sold during his lifetime; many unlicensed editions were created and circulated illegally, through pirated copies which breached the relatively recent laws concerning copyright. As this illegal copying highlights, the question of author ownership was being challenged long before the internet came along.

I like Byron’s poetry: it has grown on me over the years. Reading up on Byron for my essay is helping me to place Don Juan within the cultural milieu of late Georgian society. Yes, Byron is bitterly against almost all factions of the establishment, but at least he is consistent with his animosity. It is suggested by Longford that this might have had something to do with his clubbed foot, a disability which perhaps led to an overstatement of his masculinity; the need for sporting magnificence and his desire for many passionate but essentially unfulfilling sexual conquests. This is one argument which seeks to give meaning to the complex identity of this good looking and brilliantly witty poet: combined with an absent aristocratic father who died whilst Byron was still a boy, leaving the young future poet much land, a title, but not much money; an overbearing mother, with many uncomplimentary nicknames, who arguably allowed an incestuous relationship to develop between Byron and his sister; and any number of sexual adventures in foreign lands. The whole tale creates a saucy biographical picture which perhaps augments our reading of the poetry. Whether the more sensational stories surrounding Byron (of which I have not the space to cover) are strictly true or not is debatable, particularly seeing as the poet’s memoirs were burnt soon after he died.

Does it really matter? — if the poetry is good and worth reading.

37: Oxford by Martin Garrett

In Books, History, Literature, Music, Non-Fiction, Travel on 09/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

oxford-by-martin-garrettThis excellent guidebook is presented as a series of essays on the historic city of Oxford. Each chapter focuses on a different cultural aspect of the city: from its long history to its place in literature; and everything in between. Be prepared for a fair amount of literary quotes and humorous anecdotes, as you dip into this fascinating and insightful book. For example, did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien once drove a whole bunch of undergraduates through town in a stolen bus? Well, now you will.

In a style which is equal parts authoritative and amusing, Martin Garrett guides you with erudition and a perfectly light tone. Rather than presenting a series of facts (i.e. punting in oxford lasts until October) or giving you tips on restaurants and sights of interest, Garrett presents a cultural and an historic guide to Oxford in the manner of the good old-fashioned essay. The result is a relatively recent book (published 2014) which is less likely to date as changes are made to bus timetables and hotels readdress their website URLs. A trusted companion for someone new to city, or a welcome reminder for those who wish to reminisce.

And I am certainly in the second category, having lived in Oxford as a Brookes undergraduate, and shortly after as a bookseller. Oh Oxford! Oh poetry! Oh! Well you get the idea. Anyway, this Tuesday I return to my second home; from the metropolis which was named London many moons ago (and what Tolkien might have had in mind when he created Mordor). It also happens to be my birthday, and a beautiful time of the year for falling leaves and pleasantly mild climes.

Can’t wait to revisit places of old.

29: John Milton: A Biography by Neil Forsyth

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 15/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

John Milton A Biography by Neil ForsythJohn Milton was given an expensive education paid for by his father who was a scrivener (expert in financial matters). Milton was an expert in both classical and biblical traditions, particularly because he was able to read ancient texts in their original languages. This led him to become a poet in his younger years, despite the wishes of his father it is supposed. Eventually, he would start to aim his pen at a number of political issues surrounding, in particular, religion and divorce. Milton’s political involvement would lead to his appointment as Latin Secretary during the revolutionary government of Oliver Cromwell. This was a position he held even after he went blind.

Despite the judgement of Dr Samuel Johnson, who was critical of Milton’s fastidious reading, Milton actually lived an interesting and varied life outside of his books. He was married three times, spent a significant period travelling around Europe — in those days it took about two weeks to get from Paris to Nice — and formed his own private school where he set out a thoroughly classical but surprisingly dynamic curriculum. Most interestingly, on his European travels, Milton once met the genius astronomer Galileo at his home residence. The great scientist was being held imprisoned there by the Spanish Inquisition — oh to be a fly on the wall when that meeting occurred!

In conclusion, I would say that the biographer Neil Forsyth is the perfect guide to take you on an introductory journey through the life of John Milton. Forsyth’s writing is backed up by a consummate knowledge of his subject material and he is skilfully able to weave a story together in an original way. In a relatively short number of pages, with many insightful poetic analyses along the way, Neil Forsyth has pulled off an excellent biography for anyone interest in the poems or life of a great poet. It will also appeal to readers with a more general interest in the English Civil War and the revolutionary politics of the period.

A fascinating window into the past.

 

28: Paradise Lost by John Milton

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Poetry on 08/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

Paradise Lost

The arch angel Lucifer leads a failed rebellion against God in Heaven.  He is heroically defeated by the good angels including Michael and Gabriel. After being exiled to Hell and renamed Satan (which translates to ‘the enemy’ in Hebrew) he plots revenge with the other fallen angels. It is agreed that Satan should travel alone to Earth where God has created the garden of Eden and given life to all living things. Satan successfully passes the gates of chaos and encircles earth in search of Adam & Eve. At first Satan is beaten back by the good angels that God has sent to protect Eden against the enemy. The good angel Raphael then warns Adam about Satan who is known to be very deceitful. Then Satan overhears Adam and Eve discussing the forbidden Tree of Knowledge which contains the knowledge of Sin and Death. After appearing to Eve in a dream, Satan proceeds to inhabit the body of the Serpent and slyly convinces Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Eve then goes on to convince Adam to eat from the tree, thus completing the fall of man. Sin and death enter the world but the Son of God remains as a symbol of hope for the future.

The Bible

All of the above plot is based upon parts of the The Bible, in particular the first book Genesis. Like Paradise LostThe Bible is divided into different books which are not necessarily in chronological sequence. Each of these books can be read in or out of sequence as the reader wishes. Before the invention of the codex, each book of The Bible would have been read on scrolls. Any bible that we read is an attempt to neatly frame many different narratives written by many different authors or prophets across an extremely long period of time. The Old Testament informed the Judaic religious context of the New Testament, a sequel which formed the basis for a new religion Christianity. Over the course of history, bibles have inevitably become partisan as different publishers have translated the bible and have sought to impress their own interpretations on the text.

Classical Mythology

John Milton was educated during the European Renaissance and was extremely well read in both Greek and Roman texts, which he was able to read in their original languages. His knowledge of the classics feeds into Paradise Lost, which Milton based upon the epic verse of Ovid, Virgil and to a lesser extent Homer. The ancient myths of the past dealt with great battles, larger than life heroes and many pagan Gods who were neither good nor evil. In the seventeenth century it was the norm for writers in English to base their work on these classical myths. With great skill and education, Milton managed to combine classical and biblical genres to form something which is both beautiful to read and has added to the debates surrounding religion. One way in which Milton differed from many of his contemporaries was in his choice of non-rhyming blank verse. This enabled him to free himself from what he called the ‘bondage’ of a rhyme scheme and align the poem closer to the classical texts of which he admired and respected.

I am currently studying for an MA in English.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

26: Blake by Peter Ackroyd

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 24/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

Blake by Peter AckroydEighteenth century London is the setting for this excellent biography. It traces the steps of the visionary poet and engraver William Blake. We see Blake walking across the pavements of Lambeth, sketching tombs in Westminster Abbey, and composing poetry in the notebook of his tragically departed brother. In the midst of great political change, with the French Revolution and the American Civil War looming behind him, Blake elevates his vision of London to mythological status; late in his career, giving us the lyrics for what has become a second British national anthem: And did those feet in ancient time.

But despite being famous today, Blake was relatively unknown during his own lifetime. This was partly due to his fiery temperament, which made him difficult to work with. He could also become lost in his own creative visions. As Peter Ackroyd points out, on one occasion he agreed to a September deadline for a piece of engraving work for a book front-cover, but did not hand it until April — the book having already been published by that date. He also self-published most of his poetical works by demand, making it difficult for him to sell them on any large scale; and as if to make matters worse, each beautifully drawn design, on each separate book, was separately and painstakingly created next to the printed words. Such complicated production methods were essentially bad for business.

Peter Ackroyd wrote this biography in 1995 and it has since been at the top of many reading lists (his name beginning with has helped). The writing is steeped in detail: retracing the footsteps of Blake and his circle with a secure knowledge of London history. We are given an insight into the dissenting religious beliefs of Georgian England; tutored on the precise techniques of copper engraving; and asked to rethink the poetry and artworks from a biographical perspective. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in William Blake or the inner workings of the creative mind.

Outstanding.

14: Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Literature, Non-Fiction on 01/04/2016 at 12:00 pm

Something of Myself by Rudyrad KiplingRudyard Kipling lived an interesting life. He traveled to many places, met many historical figures and wrote some world famous stories. This book, written late in his life, is his autobiography, and gives you an impression of the public face behind the great words.

Very little is revealed about Kipling’s private life, but the book does reveal a fair amount about his worldview. When Kipling encountered people, he viewed them in racial terms and drew on racial stereotypes when forming opinions. To put it plainly, he was a racist.

But he was also a man of his age, a period when men like himself ruled the British Empire. And in his life as a writer and journalist, he was at the forefront of history, reporting on events and influencing public opinion. Although his blatant imperialism may jar one hundred years later, it was a valid part of a free press.

Well written by a great writer, but not very revealing for an autobiography.

49: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Horror, Literature, Plays on 04/12/2015 at 12:00 pm

Macbeth by William ShakespeareUnusually, the play begins with the three weird sisters, whose language is immediately unsettling. Nothing is to be trusted, even language itself is full of deceit: e.g. ‘Fair is foul’ and ‘the battle’s lost and won’. Before Macbeth enters the stage, King Duncan steeps praise upon his ‘valiant cousin’, later promoting Macbeth to the position of Thane of Cawdor. But like the Thane whom he usurps, and the language used by the sisters, Macbeth is not what he seems. We will know this soon after Macbeth and Banquo’s supernatural encounter, by listening to his soliloquies, which reveal his ‘vaulting ambition’. Even ahead of his Lady’s further encouragement towards ‘dreadful action’, Macbeth is thinking in terms of an ‘o’erleap’ of Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland. Just as Macbeth has supplanted the treacherous Cawdor, he will himself usurp the King and plot against Duncan’s rightful heirs. But whereas Cawdor was killed honourably in battle, Duncan will be dishonourably murdered by Macbeth’s dagger, attacked whilst asleep in the bed chamber of his host and hostess’s abode.

Lady Macbeth’s role is to secure Macbeth’s murderous action, which has already been set in motion by the weird sisters prophetic implanting of the idea itself. To achieve this, the Lady summons up her inner masculinity, ready to ‘unsex’ herself and to ‘bash’ the heads of her unborn children to become Queen. The Lady’s disturbed thoughts will eventually unravel into madness, although here at the beginning of the play she is still able to find ambitious reasons for murder within her thoughts and conversations. It is the cold ambition of ‘unkindness’ that she wishes to implant into her husbands power-hungry mind. Lady Macbeth becomes the co-plotter of this terrible deed, putting forward her dreadful plan to drug the guards wine so they are drunk asleep. According to the Lady’s premeditated direction, Macbeth will commit the murder itself, whilst she offers practical assistance; later going back to plant the daggers on the drowsy guards, whose clothes she will stain with the dead King’s blood.

As the play continues, and Macbeth has his comrade Banquo assassinated; at a publicly held banquet, the Lady attempts to control her husband’s shock and horror when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. At this point of the action, Lady Macbeth appears the more sane of the two murderous co-plotters, attempting to explain her husband’s unusual behaviour as she clears the guests from the room. But by the time her husband is encouraged to commit a series of further murders by the the weird sisters, the Lady’s ability to cover up the crimes we the audience have seen committed will begin to diminish. Following the horrible slaughter of a rival family, Macbeth and his Lady begin to separate into two different forms of madness. Whereas cold blooded Macbeth has ‘almost forgot the taste of fears’, his Lady descends into a sleepwalking fear of her past actions, with the realization that ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’

In the end, Lady Macbeth is the more pitiable of the two.

40: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Literature on 02/10/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Voyage Out by Virginia WoolfRachel Vinrace is twenty-four, but she has lived a sheltered existence and has no experience with men. On her father’s ship, she travels out to South America with a group of privileged English people. For Rachel, the voyage out will be a journey of self-discovery, bringing with it a new emotional awakening.

The Voyage Out (1915), Virginia Woolf’s first novel, was first published one hundred years ago. Modernist in its depiction of individual consciousness, it breaks away from the Victorian novel in two ways. Firstly, the focus is on the individual psychology of the heroin. Woolf is writing in a post-Freud world where characters are analysed in terms of their childhood experiences. Secondly, the novel presents a streamlined view of society. Woolf avoids making broad Dickensian statements about the whole of society. Instead, she uses her pen to attack members of her own social class and literary disposition.

This approach has been used against Woolf by her critics. In simple terms, The Voyage Out is just a well-written book about a bunch of posh people, on a very expensive trip abroad. I would argue against this narrow viewpoint, concentrating on the beautifully written prose. Although Woolf’s early prose will be too descriptive for some tastes, her elegant style shines through in every chapter.

There is a flowing sense of movement here, like a river of language.

38: The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Plays on 18/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Burial at Thebes by Seamus HeaneyThe Burial at Thebes by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013) is a translation of the Antigone myth. It was first published in 2004, nine years before Heaney died in Dublin. His skills as a poet were second to none, and I’m so glad that this book exists. It pretty much follows the original play by Sophocles in terms of plot and character. Where it differs from more ‘authentic’ translations (i.e. ones that try to replicate the Greek), is in its particular choice of phrasing. I wouldn’t dare say that it improves upon other scholarly versions, but the English certainly feels more readable than it does in the Cambridge text I recently reviewed. Somehow, Heaney succeeded in almost perfectly balancing plain and poetic English, whilst staying true to the Ancient Greek roots of Sophocles’ Antigone.

At first glance, the text appears to be a mix of blank verse and plain prose. Just like in many Shakespeare plays, characters of different social standing use English in different ways. For example, when Creon makes his opening speech to the Chorus of elders, it is presented in fine poetic verse. The precisely measured way in which he uses ship imagery – ‘Our ship of state’ (pp.9) – and repetition of certain words – ‘city’, ‘good’, ‘fail[s]’ – are typical rhetorical devises used by politicians throughout history. Creon’s commanding use of language is contrasting to the more bawdy language of the Guard – ‘loony’, ‘old dog for the hard road’, ‘over a barrel’ (pp.12). Although the Guard speaks in an engaging way and uses his own earthly imagery, his inability to speak in blank verse and his lexical choices represent a gulf in class. When we notice the juxtaposition between the two approaches to the English language, the result is actually quite comic.

But this play is not a comedy, and Creon is not a character with a good sense of humour. No, the tragedy that befalls the city of Thebes is a lesson set to hold a mirror up to society. As Professor Simon Goldhill of Kings College London points out, the first audiences of the classic Athenian tragedies were partaking in a religious festival called the Great Dionysia. This pompe would have included the sacrifice of bulls; a strange parade, involving bread and fake penises, led by an aristocratic virgin woman; and the performance of tragic plays, such as Antigone, with a moral message. Today, we do not worship pagan gods or slaughter animals on a night out at the theatre. However, human beings continue to live and love and die, and we still struggle to understand what it all means. This is where literature can help us come to terms with our own lives. By updating ancient texts, writers draw upon the wisdom of those who came before.

May we continue to translate this remarkable play.