Monday, 3 March 2014


I have seen the future and it works - wearing my hat as Honorary Fellow of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, my MOOC on Shakespeare and his World, based on their collections, went live today -- and I already have over 9k student and 400 followers. Am so impressed by the enthusiasm, the hunger for learning, and the quality of some of the comments and questions. Amazing that digital technology can beam around the world the kind of content that previously was only available to people signed up for degrees and physically present in the lecture room.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Heaney's "Prelude" and Hughes's

In my TLS article about Hughes and Plath I argued that Hughes considered Black Coat: Opus 131 to be his equivalent of Wordsworth's Prelude. I might have added that Roy Davids, who sold the archives to Emory and then the British Library, also told me that Ted had described Birthday Letters to him as "a kind of Prelude." So it's interesting to have discovered the following in one of the wonderful letters from Hughes to Seamus Heaney, now at Emory, which I'm rereading for a section on the book concerning the friendship between the two great poets. On 8 October 1989, Hughes writes to thank Heaney for the latest poetry sequence he has sent him. ‘The Quartet’, Ted calls it, but it was a draft of ‘Squarings’, the superb collection of 48 12 line autobiographical poems that appeared two years later in Heaney's Seeing Things. Hughes reads it as a reclaiming of Heaney’s own Lares and Penates, his spirit of home and place. It also makes him think of The Prelude ‘in the ranging self-reassessment, the lifting of sacred moments with ordinary gestures, into the pattern of the liturgy, and in the way the whole thing is a self-rededication, a realigning of yourself, to “the vows made for you”.’ I don't have the Selected Letters in front of me (they are in my writing hut, known to the family as the Ted Shed), so I'm not sure whether this letter was included. But what is striking is that Hughes sees that Heaney has written his Prelude, so he must focus on his own equivalent. He's been worrying at this for years, and confiding in Heaney. Back when he was putting Moortown together in 1979, he wrote to tell Heaney that this was a collection of bits and pieces that he had previously thought marginal or not good enough to publish. But what of the ‘central non-marginal lump of poetry’, he asks? He knows that it has yet to appear, and wonders whether it ever will. It did and it didn't. Given how much of Black Coat remains unpublished to this day, in some senses it still hasn't.

I vividly remember Heaney reading from and talking about Seeing Things, soon after its publication, at a wonderful Wordsworth Summer Conference in Grasmere, under the auspices of the late and much loved trinity of Richard Wordsworth, Jonathan Wordsworth and Robert Woof. Heaney spoke of the Wordsworthianness of his poems and I suggested to him that his title, Seeing Things, was a clear Wordsworthian hommage: a collapsing of the famous line from 'Tintern Abbey': 'We see into the life of things'. Heaney said that of course it was, but that until this moment he had not seen that it was.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hughes & Plath

Over the last four years I have been reading every word that Ted Hughes published (more than a hundred books) and the tens of thousands of pages of manuscript drafts, letters and journals that he sold to Emory University in Atlanta and that, more recently, his widow sold to the British Library in London. This is arguably the most complete archive of a poetic imagination in the entire history of English literature. For a long time I was undecided as to whether to write a literary critical book or a biography, but over Christmas I came to the conclusion that the life and the work are so inextricably intertwined that it must be a biography – albeit a very literary one. So the time came to test the water, to put a toe in the water. And where better to begin than with his diary for the week of Sylvia Plath’s death. And so: this week’s TLS, where I was kindly given the amount of space that is only very rarely accorded to a single review essay (thnak you, Alan Jenkins). After all those years in which Hughes was demonised – even accused by one notorious radical feminist of being Plath’s “murderer” – it was astonishing to discover how hard he worked to save the marriage in that final week before she took her life. How many times have we read about him “deserting” Sylvia and “going off to live with Assia Wevill”? Never again. The blame game should now be over. Never presume to look inside a marriage or a separation until you’ve heard both sides of the story in full (and there is more, much more, to tell on both sides). But what his diary also reveals, of course, is the unbelievably awful effect on human behaviour of what in the piece I call “the volatility of manic depression.” It probably wouldn’t have happened with today’s more sophisticated anti-depressive medication. But then would we have had Ariel if Sylvia Plath had been stabilised by lithium?

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

New Sappho Poem

Amazing that an apparently authentic new Sappho poem has been discovered this late in the day: excellent TLS article here. But knowing the history of Shakespearean forgeries (John S's 'spiritual testimony', the imaginary performance of Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607 ...), one always wonders. Assume the article will be in this week's print TLS. Which will also include a long commentary piece regarding which my breath is, er, bated.

I rather like that this blog has almost no followers. 'Fit audience, though few'. Makes it more of a diary space, place for private musing.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Discuss. As they say in the examination question paper.

Interesting interview with George Lakoff in Guardian online:

It is, plainly, the longstanding failure to protect nature that powers Lakoff's exasperation with liberals. "They don't understand their own moral system or the other guy's, they don't know what's at stake, they don't know about framing, they don't know about metaphors, they don't understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don't understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion. They do everything wrong because they're miseducated. And they're proud of that miseducation. Oxford philosophy reigns supreme, right? Oxford philosophy is killing the world."
Do we agree? I do want to return to writing some literary ecotheory some time. Though actually the position here - anti-Cartesian most obviously - is not so far from the place I currently am in my account of the thought of Ted Hughes, that great ecowarrior and ecoworrier.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Robben Island 'Bible'

A timely poignancy to "the valiant never taste of death but once": CNN story.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

How stories grow

I'm always interested in the question of when and why a "literary" story makes it off the review pages, or indeed out of the academic world, into the "news" sphere. The "new scene by Shakespeare" versus "possible new attribution to Fletcher" scenario ... An under-estimated aspect is the desire of an individual, either regional or freelance, journalist to place a story nationally. It was thanks to Dalya Alberge's interest and tenacity that Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others briefly became a news story. By the same account, my other half, Paula Byrne, had an interesting experience this week: answered a question about the Jane Austen banknote at the Isle of Wight Literary Festival (not exactly the buzzing heart of breaking news), pointing out that it is the "airbrushed" Victorian engraving, not the original portrait (or caricature?) by her sister. An enterprising local journo from Radio Solent is there. She does an interview with Paula for her local station, but then, presumably in order to give good profile to Solent within the fragile ecology of local radio, suggests to Radio Five Live that this could also be worth an interview. Next thing, it is the Today programme, stories in almost every national newspaper and a global twitterstorm. The mediation of author pictures (cf. Chandos versus Droeshout, whether Cobb Portrait really is Sir Thomas Overbury etc. etc.) is a fascinating subject, but of course the "mainstream media" is only interested if (a) there is a controversy, and (b) it's about a big name - Austen or Shakespeare (as opposed to, say, Burney or Fletcher - my candidate for the sitter in the "Sanders Portrait").