It was our game, to drive at night into their city,
scan the streets, choose a house at random
and stroll in mid-evening as the householders
were finishing, say, a birthday dinner.
We watched them look up, terrified but mute.
We picked lambs off their plates, emptied their glasses
then ran upstairs, threw open drawers
tried on jackets, fingered through their journals,
pocketed the odd keepsake – scarf, set of car keys,
half-read book, a piece of underwear for shame.
We tried to get a rise from them by breakage:
a cabinet of crystal cups, statuettes of local gods,
but they are patient in their sad-masks.
Such acquiescence, you knew they saw you straight,
and even so would give you everything.
Our only rule: we never touched them.
Save one time I saw a blue heart-shaped soap
clutched in a woman’s hand and something in her
would not give it up to me for all the world.
I have it somewhere. Let me find it.
Published in the London Review of Books, 18 May 2017, p. 23
Figure and ground in Michael Symmons Roberts’ ‘What’s Yours is Mine’
The cognitive categories of figure and ground facilitate discussion of how the reader’s attention is directed and assist in the positive identification of foregrounded items. Figures attract the reader’s attention whereas the ground consists of items that are neglected and/or deselected. In the case of the poem under consideration in this essay, the speaker of the poem and his/her companions collectively comprise the figure for the first three verses of the poem in that they move and act against the householders, who constitute the background all the while they remain static and undeveloped.
‘What’s Yours is Mine’ by Michael Symmons Roberts was published in the London Review of Books on 18 May 2017, appearing alongside another poem by the same writer entitled ‘Soliloquy of the Inner Emigré’ and an article on ‘Brexitism’ by Alan Finlayson. Given this context, it is fair to assume that the subject of Roberts’ poem is that of immigration, a highly contentious and emotionally-charged topic in the current political climate. In this reading, the householders represent an immigrant or ethnic community terrorised by those who cannot accept their presence. Nevertheless, this is not the only possible reading. When removed from the circumstances of its publication, the poem could equally be read as a metaphor for an oppressive political regime or an abusive personal relationship. Alternative readings such as these resonate behind any chosen interpretation and I see no reason to pin down one reading as definitive.
The poem describes a scenario in which the speaker and his/her companions enter the homes of the city-dwellers and cause havoc. The intruders’ motivation is not that of pecuniary gain (although some small items are looted as ‘keepsake[s]’), but merely to ‘get a rise from’ the ‘householders’, or in other words, to provoke some reaction from them. Their efforts are unsuccessful until the last verse, and the narrative change in the final lines is marked textually by a fluctuation in the figure/ground relationship coupled with a foregrounded presence of negation and a deictic pronoun shift.
The ‘dominant’ of the poem, or its larger organising principle, is the us/them dichotomy established in the poem’s title (yours/mine) and the first line: ‘It was our game, to drive at night into their city’ (my emphasis). This polarity is sustained throughout in the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘they/them/their’ until the final verse, when one of ‘them’ emerges from the background to become a figure through her unwillingness to relinquish the ‘blue heart-shaped soap’. Her defiance is marked against a background of acquiescence which had formerly characterised ‘them’, and this figure, previously one of the ‘sad-masks’, is now recognised as a woman. Equally, the speaker is no longer part of a larger ‘we’, but in the final verse becomes ‘I’ and ‘me’. The woman’s stand against the intruders has led to a recognition of the presence of the individual within a larger group in both parties: the woman as part of ‘them’ and the speaker as part of ‘we’. The poem’s ending is unrelentingly bleak, nonetheless. The last line comprises two complete sentences and the caesura created by the first full stop allows the reader a moment for the full impact of the preceding statement to sink in: ‘I have it somewhere. Let me find it.’ What happened to the woman is unknown, but the intruder is now in possession of the soap and broke the game’s only rule (‘we never touched them’) to get it.
The next section of this essay takes a closer look at figure and ground in the poem to further elaborate on the points already made. The poem comprises four verses each of five unrhymed lines, and a mixture of long and short sentences. I have already mentioned the devastating effect of the caesura in the final line, and in fact, this structure is mirrored in the first line of the final verse: ‘Our only rule: we never touched them.’ This rule has clearly been broken in the poem’s final line and the enormity of this event is foregrounded in the parallel construction of these lines, both of which are uncharacteristic of the rest of the poem, where the lines run into one another in imitation of one half of a spoken dialogue. The speaker is relating to the listener (who may or may not be identified with the reader) details of a ‘game’. Given that the past tense is consistently used, one may assume that the game is no longer played, presumably because its object has been achieved. The first verse describes how the victims of the game were chosen: entirely ‘at random’. The second verse shows the game in progress, with lists of actions performed and objects stolen; each of the latter takes temporary prominence before being deselected as the next item – with all its attendant implications – moves into focus. The intruders are a collective ‘figure’ here because almost every action in the first two verses belongs to them. Even the one exception performed by the householders (line 5) is an action embedded in another: the intruders, in subject position, watch the householders ‘look up’ and the following description (‘terrified but mute’) is rendered through the intruders’ eyes. As the intruders ransack the house, the full meaning of the poem’s title is made clear. The intruders violate the householders’ food, drink, clothes including underwear, means of transport, literature, even their private thoughts (‘fingered through their journals’). The third verse furnishes the reader with the object of the game, expressed in colloquial form: ‘We tried to get a rise from them’. The ‘but’ which follows in line 13 renders this construction implicitly negative: a ‘rise’ has not been obtained. The revelation of the game’s object occurs at the exact mid-point of the poem and this is the crux: what the intruders want is a reaction. When a reaction is obtained, albeit it one of static defiance (‘something in her / would not give it up to me for all the world’), the only rule is broken and the game is over.
The figure/ground relation is rather more complex in the third verse. The intruders remain the key attractor even in the active verbs attached to the householders in lines 14 and 15, because the viewpoint belongs to the intruders. Nevertheless, this position is clouded by foregrounded language attached to the householders. Alliteration draws attention to the ‘cabinet of crystal cups’, for example, and the precise meaning of ‘statuettes of local gods’ is unclear. (These statuettes may be family photographs, or shelf ornaments, but the phrase could also be taken entirely literally: this is one point in particular where the reader’s interpretation of the poem as a whole will dictate what form the statuettes take.) The pattern of past-tense verbs is broken in line 13 (‘they are patient’) and the householders are dehumanised and rendered faceless in the phrase ‘sad-masks’. The emergence of one of the householders as a figure in the final verse is anticipated in the preceding verse as the foregrounded items mentioned gradually draw the reader’s attention towards those persecuted rather than the persecutors. Finally, it is the woman’s reluctance to part with the ‘blue heart-shaped soap’ that changes the game.
I have not yet mentioned other texts brought into play by this poem, namely those referred to in the title and accompanying quotation. The title would seem to be a paraphrase of a marriage vow from the Book of Common Prayer (‘with all my worldly goods I thee endow’), and refers to a state in which goods become common property by mutual consent. The quotation from More’s Utopia similarly refers to a set-up in which theft is unimaginable. More’s utopian blueprint describes a society in which everyone’s possessions are identical, so there is no motive for robbery. By contrast, the intruders in Roberts’ poem steal only ‘keepsake[s]’ from the households they invade at random through doors which are left open. The motivation for their actions is not the acquisition of goods, but the exercise of power. Their intention is not robbery or assault, but humiliation and provocation. The intruders wish to assert their dominance over the householders and to strip them of all human dignity by treating them with heartless contempt.
This analysis has employed the cognitive categories of figure and ground to articulate that which is readily understood, but perhaps not otherwise so clearly demonstrated. The analysis has benefitted from the application of this framework in that the woman’s emergence as a figure and the speaker’s recognition of her as such has been effectively traced. The poem’s bleak ending is rendered all the more powerful once it is realised that the speaker has recognised an individual human being amongst the faceless ‘them’ that s/he is engaged in persecuting, but has carried out an act of violence towards the woman regardless of this insight. The speaker is not simply lacking in empathy, but is finally characterised as a being who is actively cruel and merciless.
Synopsis: Turpin and Swiftnick are riding towards Mudbury, to lie low for a while. On the way, they save a man’s life when he is attacked by deserters. The man turns out to be Tom Bracewell, a prize-fighter on his way to a fight. Turpin brags to Swiftnick of the time he knocked out the English prize-fighting champion, but admits it was probably down to a lucky punch. Once at Mudbury, Turpin takes a bath while Swiftnick learns that a man named Nightingale is running a protection racket and terrorising the village.
Nightingale employs a thug by name of Hogg (played by Robert Russell) to beat up anyone who refuses to pay. Swiftnick brags of Turpin’s former victory and the villagers temporarily regard Turpin as their potential saviour until, following an altercation with Nightingale, Turpin is beaten by Hogg.
Turpin refuses to leave and is determined to rescue Mudbury from the clutches of Hogg and Nightingale. He engages Bracewell to challenge Hogg to a fight. On the day, however, Bracewell is nowhere to be found, and in order to avoid forfeiting the money put down for the challenge, Turpin steps into the ring in Bracewell’s place. Swiftnick breaks into Nightingale’s house to find out if Bracewell is being held there, but in fact Bracewell has been gagged and bound and is trapped in a box near where the fight is being held. A small boy in the crowd discovers Bracewell, and just in time – Turpin has been well and truly beaten up, but refuses to give in. Bracewell steps into the ring just as Turpin delivers one final punch which defeats Hogg. The village is freed and Nightingale is placed in the stocks.
Commentary: The deserters we see at the beginning of this episode are presumably from the Jacobite Rising of 1715. James II fled to France following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 and was active afterwards as The Pretender. Those still loyal to James II feature in episodes which follow this one, as we shall see. The reigning monarch at this time was George I, who succeeded to the throne after Queen Anne’s death in 1714.
That which is most interesting about this episode is the way in which Turpin’s vanity manifests itself. He can’t reveal his name willy-nilly as he travels about the country because there is a very large price on his head and if captured, he will hang. The pair travel under assumed names: Mr Turner (close to Turpin) and Mr Nicholas Smith (which is Swiftnick’s real name, but it is a common enough name and he is unlikely to forget it). However, as we see in this and other episodes, there is a conflict between the necessity of keeping Turpin’s name a secret and his desire to create his own legend.
In spite of Turpin’s vanity, he is hero-material nevertheless. He refuses to chuck in the fight, even though he is half-dead, and he is fighting under an assumed name – it is only at the end of the episode that he reveals his true identity. Fortunately for him, his ‘lucky punch’ replays itself and he lays out Hogg without having to concede the fight.
This episode features a lovely over-the-top performance from John Grillo as the zealous tax-collector Father Nightingale. Turpin shows himself to be more than capable of preaching the Bible right back at the village’s oppressor, reminding us, perhaps, that he wasn’t always a highwayman and was once a gentleman-farmer. There are many funny moments in this episode and some excellent comic timing from O’Sullivan, who, of course, was something of a sit-com star (Man About the House in the seventies, Robin’s Nest and Me and My Girl in the eighties). The final fight itself, with Turpin dodging punch after punch, reminds me of the fight between Vitalstatistix and Cassius Ceramix (whose name is a pun on Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali’s real name) in Asterix and the Big Fight – and of course, Vitalstatistix emerges the victor in exactly the same way that Turpin does here.
Synopsis: Swiftnick’s apprenticeship is not going well because he’s foolhardy and talks too much. Turpin is not pleased with him, but agrees to give him one last chance as long as he can do as he’s told and keep his mouth shut. Within minutes of their arrival at the White Lion, however, Swiftnick is telling tales of their adventures to one of the staff, a young girl called Kate. Spiker has been tipped off and arrives on the scene, only to receive a splendid black eye during the fight which ensues. Turpin assumes it was Kate who informed Spiker, so he arranges for Swiftnick to serve an apprenticeship with a gunsmith and leaves him behind.
Meanwhile, Sir John Glutton and Spiker are laying a trap for Turpin. An actress sentenced to three years for scrumping apples is disguised as a rich widow travelling alone. Turpin holds up her coach and is captured. He is thrown into jail and sentenced to hang.
Kate visits Turpin in jail and tells him that he used to ride with her father, who was hanged by Spiker. Turpin informs Kate where to find Swiftnick, and the two lay an explosive ambush to rescue Turpin as he is transported from jail to the place where he is to be executed. Swiftnick is forgiven and reconciled with Turpin.
Commentary: the themes of betrayal and loyalty characterise this episode. The ‘squealer’ at the White Lion witnesses Turpin’s arrival and rides off to betray his whereabouts, motivated no doubt by the thought of the £200 reward offered for Turpin’s capture. The actress, who tells us she has played Cleopatra, is induced to play her part in Sir John’s plot in exchange for her freedom, but she cooks her own goose when she demands the reward and is instantly slung back in jail.
In spite of the generous reward on offer, there are those who are loyal to Turpin. Kate stands out as one who risks a great deal to help the man who once rode with her father, and when Swiftnick hears that Turpin has been taken, he charges to the rescue regardless, not worrying that Turpin had dismissed him from his service.
Something else to note in this episode is the way in which Spiker’s vanity and ambition is exploited by Sir John Glutton. Spiker spends quite a lot of time looking in mirrors (for which he is often berated) and Sir John knows that what the man wants is property, position and respect. ‘Rid the nation of this symbol of anarchy’, says Sir John, and promises to reward Spiker accordingly once Turpin has been safely hanged.
In spite of the seriousness of the heavy-weight themes and all the talk of hanging, it’s important to note that the series has a light-hearted touch throughout, with plenty of humour. The gunsmith comments that Swiftnick looks as if he’ll eat too much, for example. Our ‘Cleopatra’ gives a wonderfully hammy performance and Sir John can’t make up his mind whether or not he wants Spiker to knock before he comes in.
In this essay I explore the implications of T. S. Eliot’s statement in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that ‘[n]o poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone’. Eliot imagines the entire collection of literary works as ‘an ideal order’ of ‘existing monuments’ (1920). Every new work is a product of that which has gone before, and, in circular fashion, the perception of existing works is affected by the arrival of the new. This essay is a study of that process and the discussion is informed by debates and issues concerning the concept of intertextuality, specifically what is understood by this term and what forms it can take. Selected poems by John Heath-Stubbs alongside his autobiography and literary essays provide the primary material, and all references are to Heath-Stubbs’ Collected Poems (1988) unless otherwise indicated. The discussion focuses on Heath-Stubbs’ use of intertextuality in the following particulars: the exploration and comparative study of the worlds of myth and natural history using the framework of ancient stories (Polyphemus); the appropriation of well-known literary characters (Further Adventures of Doctor Faustus and Winter in Illyria); and the adaption and expansion of a metaphor created by another writer (Moving to Winter). Implied in the discussion of the role of the author in this context is the question of where authorship begins and/or ends when the poet uses someone else’s words or characters. I also consider the role of the reader, what kind of reader is implied in the poet’s use of intertextuality and to what extent the reader/critic also takes on the mantle of authorship or creator.
The literary references of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1940) operate a two-way effect in which the works alluded to infiltrate and resonate throughout the poem’s lines, while simultaneously, Eliot’s reformulation of literary fragments invites a re-evaluation of the original texts. This is entirely consistent with the logic of Eliot’s argument in his 1920 essay ’Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in that a new work of art stems from that which has gone before and, in being assimilated into the existing body of literature, affects how pre-existing works are perceived. The connection between Eliot’s line of argument and intertextuality is encapsulated in Brée’s description of Kristeva’s version of intertextuality as ‘the power of the written text to impose a reorganization of the corpus of texts that preceded its appearance, creating a modification in the manner in which they are read’ (quoted in Orr, 2003: 10). In addition, Eliot’s proposal that influence is bi- rather than mono-directional is reflected in Baxandall’s suggestion that the newer text ‘y’ be redefined as ‘agent’, and that the original text ‘x’, which has been adapted to produce ‘y’, be considered therefore as ‘contributory’ (quoted in Orr, 2003: 84-85). As will be noted in the discussion of intertextuality to follow, this bidirectional flow of assimilation and re-evaluation entails a democratisation of texts with both x and y considered on the same footing. Before embarking on this discussion, however, I will consider briefly the life and work of the creator of the primary sources under consideration in this essay, and the poet’s suitability as a subject for this topic.
John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006) is a poet renowned for the extraordinary depth and range of his learning, in particular his remarkable knowledge of English literature. In an obituary written for The Guardian, one of Heath-Stubbs’ university coevals Michael Meyer described him as ‘unusually widely read and discerning’ (2006) and, writing for the Royal Society of Literature, Sebastian Faulks noted that ‘[h]is encyclopaedic knowledge was legendary’ (2006). Peter Avery, with whom Heath-Stubbs worked on translations of Hafiz and Omar Khayyám, wrote for a special edition of Aquarius dedicated to Heath-Stubbs that ‘[h]e has English literature at his finger-tips in a way I believe nobody else can equal’. In reference to the translations the two men produced, Avery notes that the ‘apostolic approach’ they adopted in regard to the original text raised difficulties which ‘[o]nly John’s immense range of literary references…and his wide vocabulary [could] solve’ (1978: 23). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Heath-Stubbs insisted he was not ‘erudite’, but instead ‘a magpie-like collector of interesting oddments’ (Powell, 2006).
Heath-Stubbs struggled with poor eyesight from the age of three and was completely blind following the removal of his one remaining eye in 1978; nevertheless, he continued to publish poetry until the year before his death. Tape-recorders had their part to play in his compositional process, but more importantly, Heath-Stubbs was possessed of an exceptional memory. In an interview for PN Review, Clive Wilmer comments that ‘[i]nescapably, memory has played a major role in [Heath-Stubbs’] later development … the poems quite plainly draw on remembered knowledge’ (1993:51). Heath-Stubbs has said of his use of literary references that ‘[w]hen I’m writing poetry…I almost make it a rule never to look things up, with the idea that the only real knowledge is what you can spontaneously remember’ (Thompson, 1999). Even in the Google age where every reference is only a keyboard-search away, memory still has a central role to play in intertextuality; after all, the memories of authors and readers alike are repositories of previously-experienced texts and, to adopt Barthes’ phrase, the ‘already-read’.
Heath-Stubbs’ poetry is rich in literary allusion. He notes in the preface to his Collected Poems that while studying at Oxford, he and his peers ‘accepted that, amid the complexities of the twentieth-century, poetry, if it were to have any wide significance, should also be complex. It would be allusive and need not always be immediately accessible to rational analysis’. Heath-Stubbs also notes that he ‘came to feel that since language is a convention which one shares with other speakers and writers, and not a separate mode of expression…the poem is in a certain sense carrying on a dialogue with other poems’ (1988: 22). Heath-Stubbs is somewhat on the defensive in this preface. One senses the dissenting voice behind the text with which the poet is in dialogue, ostensibly with the aim of countering a charge of elitism. Heath-Stubbs cites Philip Larkin, his ‘friend and contemporary at Oxford’, who was puzzled as to the identity of Leporello in The Don Juan Triptych, and comments that ‘I should have thought that it was not pedantry to suppose that at least some my readers might be acquainted with the operas of Mozart’ (23). Heath-Stubbs gently makes clear his expectations of his readers: ‘I can only ask my readers to be patient if they should come across in reading my poems references to matters which may be unfamiliar to them. I have already suggested that it might not be too difficult for them to find out, and that they might be gainers if they do, but if they are not so inclined, why not let it stand as a mystery or a riddle’ (23-24). The tasks which fall to the reader to perform and questions of literary competence will be considered in due course, but the discussion turns now to an examination of what is meant by the term ‘intertextuality’ and what forms intertextuality can take.
Kristeva first coined the term by way of synthesising Saussure’s structuralist work centring on the semiotics of langue/parole with Bakhtin’s work on dialogism, and in practice it serves as a useful umbrella term for many ‘forms of representation such as parody, pastiche, satire, caricature, travesty, that mimic by reversal but which are also distinguishable from plagiarism’ (Orr, 2003: 99). The trilingual Kristeva was able to read the work of Bakhtin in its original form and her version of intertextuality is based on (but not identical to) Bakhtin’s theories of ‘heteroglossia’ or the multi-voiced text (Vice, 1997). Barthes contributed to the debate, not least with his denial of the author (1977: 142-148), as did Riffaterre who wrote extensively about intertextuality and the reader. Another structuralist critic, Genette, responded to Kristeva’s ‘too overarching term’ with his ‘more nuanced taxonomies’ (Orr, 2003: 6), namely the intertextual, metatextual, architextual, paratextual and hypertextual (Allen, 2000: 101-115), thereby reducing the scope of the term to ‘issues of quotation, plagiarism and allusion’ (Allen, 2000: 101). The post-structuralist position treats intertextuality as far more wide-ranging and all-encompassing. While structuralists laboured to demonstrate that intertextuality could stabilise textual significance by locating a text’s sources, post-structuralists were concerned to show that intertextuality throws into confusion all ‘notions of stable meaning’ (Allen, 2000: 3-4). The post-structuralist position is in fact so inclusive as to render useless any attempt to locate the building blocks which have gone into a text’s construction. In their overview of literary criticism and theory, Bennett and Royle write of intertextuality as a term which means ‘that every word of every text refers to other texts and so on, limitlessly’ (2009: 323); that texts are ‘unfinished and unfinishable’, and that ‘texts are inevitably linked up with other texts and that there is no simple end (or beginning) to any text’ (315). In spite of the divergence of opinion on the exact scope of the term, Orr notes that Kristeva’s coinage was a success, and that this new term came as a challenge to ‘pre-1968 ideologies’, confronting amongst other things the notion of ‘the pre-eminence of high-cultural expression’ (2003: 1). This was possible because ‘[p]rior text materials lose special status by permutation with others in the intertextual exchange because all intertexts are of equal importance in the intertextual process’ (28, emphasis in original). In support of this position, Allen notes that ‘intertextuality reminds us that all texts are potentially plural, reversible, open to the reader’s own presuppositions, lacking in clarity and defined boundaries, and always involved in the expression or repression of the dialogic “voices” which exist within society’ (207).
The notion of heteroglossia or numerous voices present in any one text brings the discussion to Barthes’ (in)famous essay on ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977: 142-148). Barthes draws on Kristeva’s work on Bakhtin in arguing that the author’s mind is full of language previously encountered and that this kind of knowledge, which includes a familiarity with literary conventions (Culler, 1975: 135), is unavoidable. As a result, the author simply ‘arranges and compiles the always already written, spoken, and read’ into a single textual space (Allen, 2000: 73). The resulting text is ‘a tissue of quotations’ (Barthes, 1977: 146). The restrictive extremism of such a position may be partially explained by an anxiety to discredit influence study on the part of those who have championed theories of intertextuality, dating from the work of the New Critics if not before. Orr points out that ‘[t]he term [intertextuality] reacted to most violently, and desired to replace and displace, was influence, with all its baggage of critical source-hunting and authorial intention’ (2003: 15). The solution was to deny ‘agents and intention altogether’ (83). Almost sixty years before Barthes penned his essay, Eliot had acknowledged the debt poets owed to their forebears, but showed himself keen to retain the author figure through his metaphor of the poet’s mind as a shred of platinum which acts as a catalyst in the presence of two gases to form ‘sulphurous acid’. The poet’s incorporation of already-written texts into the new provokes a readjustment in perception of the ‘ideal order’ of ‘existing monuments’ and Eliot’s poet therefore shoulders ‘great difficulties and responsibilities’ (1920).
Eliot wants to make of the poet a literary torch-bearer, but Barthes’ line of argument suggests that far from being a guardian who bequeaths received and acknowledged wisdom, the author is likely to be wholly unaware of his/her own specific sources of influence. In an interview for PN Review, Heath-Stubbs told Clive Wilmer that ‘[i]t’s very difficult to know who has influenced you. I’ve sometimes had students who have been writing dissertations or theses on my work. They come to see me and the first question they ask is: “Who are your influences?” I say, “You’re supposed to tell me!”’ (1993: 52). The proponents of intertextuality promote the reader to a site of potential meaning; indeed, Barthes names the reader as the focal point of the existing multiplicity of writings (1997: 148), an ‘I’ that is ‘already a plurality of other texts’ (quoted in Culler, 1981: 113). For Barthes, authors and readers are one and the same: ‘[t]he intertextual nature of writing and of the text turns both terms of the traditional model, author and critic, into readers’ (Allen, 2000: 75). Orr notes that accounting for the reader’s prior knowledge presents researchers with a difficulty not easily resolved (2003: 39), and while it may indeed be impossible to accurately assess the literary competence of one particular individual, it is also true that readers are taught how to read literature as ‘a second-order semiotic system which has language as its basis’ (Culler, 1975: 132). As Culler points out in his chapter on literary competence, ‘the notion of effect presupposes modes of reading which are not random or haphazard’ (1975: 135). Knowledge of literary conventions enables the reader to ‘identify various levels of coherence and set them in relation to one another’; the text then becomes subject to a ‘different series of interpretive operations’ compared with understanding an utterance outside the literary sphere (1975: 133). Jenny goes so far as to suggest that literature would be simply ‘unintelligible’ without intertextuality: ‘[u]nderstanding [the literary work] supposes competence in the decoding of the literary language, which can only be acquired by experience with a large number of texts’ (1982: 34). This competence comprises knowledge of various conventions, which Culler identifies as those of metaphorical coherence, poetic tradition, thematic unity and the rule of significance (1975: 134). He adds that a poem should be ‘thought of as an utterance that has meaning only with respect to a system of conventions which the reader has assimilated’ (135). Similarly for Genette, literary works are not utterances that can stand alone, but ‘particular articulations (selections and combinations) of an enclosed system’ (Allen, 2000: 96), a system that is shared and understood and which to a certain extent even dictates reader-response. On reading as a social practice, Stockwell notes that ‘[i]ndividual sense experiences are partly shaped by our socialised sense of acceptable responses and appropriate articulations, from a very early point in processing’ (2009: 78).
The notion of ‘acceptable responses’ is an important one for literary competence. As Culler points out, ‘[r]eaders do not have the freedom to read as they will. Poetic signs form patterns that cannot be ignored’ (1981: 104). The reader is guided to complete the gaps in the text by means of ‘secondary signals’ which provide ‘the thread leading to the solution’ (65). Intertextual references, whether embedded or explicit, serve as such signals: ‘[i]ntertextuality is the recognition of a frame, a context that allows the reader to make sense out of what he or she might otherwise perceive as senseless’ (Plottel and Charney quoted in Orr, 2003: 11). The text generates its own ‘ideal reader’, which is ‘a theoretical construct, perhaps best thought of as a representation of the central notion of acceptability … the possibility of critical argument depends on shared notions of the acceptable and the unacceptable, a common ground which is nothing other than the procedures of reading’ (Culler, 1975: 144-145).
The ideal reader, then, should recognise a literary reference, or at least be able to spot that a frame of some kind is in use. Riffaterre refers to what he terms ‘ungrammaticalities’ in the text which enable a reader to do so. These ‘ungrammaticalities’ are markers which function as ‘a nexus of significations’ and they include the following:
the remodelling of poetic paradigms, conventions of versification, stock images and epithets (conceits and blasons), or rhetorical overdeterminations such as paronomasia (the playing out of meanings of words that sound alike), catachresis (the improper use of terms in a given context), anaphora (repetition of certain words in subsequent clauses, extended metaphors), syllepses (words pertinent to two or more registers), hypograms proper (puns, anagrams, homophones, homonyms) and symbols (Orr, 2003: 38).
It should be noted, however, that the movement from identification to interpretation is not always straightforward. Riffaterre himself wrote an ingenious reading of a prose poem by André Breton, based on Riffaterre’s knowledge of the conventions of the pastoral genre and his identification of intertextual references to the pastoral. The question to consider in such a case as this is whether Riffaterre’s response constitutes an ‘acceptable reading’ of Breton’s poem, or whether it is not, in fact, a response which is in itself an inventive and original piece of creative writing.
To return to Barthes, and his disregard for authorial authority of any kind, the Barthesian reader is a reagent of the text whose critical response is purely emotive (Orr, 2003: 35). It is not possible, however, to square this approach with the reality of readers’ activities and their production of ‘acceptable’ readings, nor is it clear how Barthes would account for authorial use of quotation which is quite clearly intentional when the reference to another text functions as a ‘shorthand cultural reference’ (Orr, 2003: 88). Indeed, Genette argues for precisely the opposite approach in which the reader’s function and priority is to follow the intertextual references, both embedded and explicit, to reassign the work its place in a closed literary system (Allen, 2000: 96). In the section to follow, I shall discuss examples from John Heath-Stubbs’ poetry which make explicit intertextual references, thereby pointing the way very clearly for the reader to understand the poem in relation to the other texts on which it depends. I hope to demonstrate also that, in accordance with Eliot’s claim, Heath-Stubbs’ poetry draws on the works of the past to produce new works in the present and, in addition, encourages the reader to reflect on and perhaps reassess the literary sources adopted.
Literary archetypes such as myths and legends are texts which are ‘constantly in flux, constantly metamorphosing in the process of adaptation and retelling … Mythical literature depends upon, incites even, perpetual acts of reinterpretation in new contexts’ (Sanders, 2016: 79-80). An artistic tendency to re-use and re-create ancient stories is well represented in Heath-Stubbs’ work. In Hindsights, he notes that his exposure to Hiawatha and Kingsley’s The Heroes ‘opened up [his] mind to the possibilities of studying mythology and folklore in a comparative spirit’ (1993: 34). In ‘Polyphemus’ (106), Heath-Stubbs explores the interface between the worlds of natural history and myth. Heath-Stubbs’ Polyphemus is a lonely shepherd, loved by no one but his sheep. The poem leads the reader to several other sources – Homer, Lully, Handel, Ovid, Boccaccio – but the nature of Heath-Stubbs’ eponymous character is distinct from Homer’s man-eating monster who serves as an obstacle to Odysseus’ journey. He is different again to the murderous spurned lover of Ovid, Lully and Handel who features in the stories of Galatea and her Acis. The effect of painting a sympathetic portrait of Polyphemus is to encourage the reader to consider the well-known story from such an angle, and also to reassess the other characters in a corresponding light: Odysseus, known for his cunning and scheming in any case, is depicted here as needlessly violent and cruel, blinding Polyphemus for the sake of it rather than to save his own life and the lives of his men; ‘brisk’ Galatea is not Ovid’s grieving nymph but a treacherous, wilful flirt who cruelly ‘flaunts’ Polyphemus. The last stanza turns the poem into a gentle lament for the loss of belief in these beings, now the subject of story and myth. Boccaccio’s ‘The bones of Polyphemus!’ is dismissed in favour of the more practical explanation based in palaeontology which identifies Polyphemus’ bones as those of an elephant. The irony is that the ‘learned world’ is mistaken according to the world of Heath-Stubbs’ poem.
The switch required of the reader in the example above is to consider and compare different world-views and belief systems. Sanders notes that ‘[t]he transformation involved in seeing things from a different point of view is a driving force in many…appropriations of classic texts’ (2016: 61). In ‘Polyphemus’, the reader is encouraged to sympathise with the cyclops in being reminded of his isolation and lonely death. Genette writes of this kind of creative move in Palimpsests: ‘[t]he revaluation of a character consists in investing him or her – by way of pragmatic or psychological transformation – with a more significant and/or more “attractive” role in the value system of the hypertext [the adaptive text or re-creation] than was the case in the hypotext [the source or original]’ (quoted in Sanders, 2016: 62). In the examples to follow, Heath-Stubbs merges two characters into one, which has the effect of making both characters considerably less attractive.
In ‘Further Adventures of Doctor Faustus’, the character from Christopher Marlowe’s play stages his own demise to escape his creditors, evading ‘poor Mephistophilis’ at the same time, to re-emerge as Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both plays are referenced in Heath-Stubbs’ text by proper nouns, plot references, direct quotation in italics and quotation marks, and quotation which is rather more indirect: ‘nodding away / The butt end of his life, every third thought his grave’ (103). Faustus and Prospero are both scholar-magicians and it is not inconceivable that they should be one and the same character, especially if one takes a rather dim view of Prospero’s activities: ‘being marooned, / Upon a desert island, he set it up / A mini-imperialist commonwealth, / Successfully enslaving and exploiting / The local aboriginals, of air and earth’. The ‘local aboriginals’ are, of course, Ariel and Caliban respectively. Both are set free at the end of Shakespeare’s play, but prior to this event they are both bound to Prospero’s will and any dissent is rapidly silenced by physical torture or accusations of ingratitude. In the final lines, Heath-Stubbs likens the magic in Faustus/Prospero’s apparently still extant books to nuclear waste: a toxic residue that poisons the land and all who come into contact with it.
Heath-Stubbs performs a similar trick of merging literary characters in ‘Winter in Illyria’(77). This short, bleak poem comprises six verses, each of two original lines followed by a third which, in each case a direct quotation from Shakespeare, has the function of a refrain. The first intertextual reference is of course in the name ‘Illyria’ itself. Illyria existed as an historical region, but it is more recognisably the setting for Twelfth Night. Each verse of this poem contains a visual and/or aural image, which structure arguably imitates ‘the Persian manner of structuring a poem by means of a series of intuitive image-links, rather than logically and lineally’ (Heath-Stubbs, 1998: 120), a literary tradition with which Heath-Stubbs, as co-translator of Hafiz and Omar Khayyám, would have been very familiar. The images are those of a drear desolation: a fountain choked with fallen leaves, the screech of a white peacock, and ‘Remembered echoes’ of ‘lute-strings’ and ‘drunken singing’. The accompanying quotations to these images are drawn from Feste’s songs, and in the fourth verse Fabian’s line ‘Carry his water to the wise woman!’ follows the image of a ‘tormented man’ locked in a ‘darkened room’. The man is of course Malvolio, and the tense shift in the fifth verse from present to past (‘He left feckless Illyria’) marks a movement from a remembering consciousness to an objective narratorial voice. The final quotation in the sixth verse is not from Twelfth Night, but Othello. Malvolio, with revenge in his heart, becomes Iago, that most inscrutable and ruthless of Shakespearean villains. Iago famously refuses to comment on the motivation behind his behaviour: ‘Demand me nothing, what you know, you know, / From this time forth I never will speak a word’ (Shakespeare, 1958 [?1604]: 194). In the poem-world imagined by Heath-Stubbs, that motivation becomes the need for revenge, irrespective of the identity of the victim. Babcock argues that Iago is a character who is peculiarly susceptible to social slights and that his behaviour is driven by a sense of inferiority (1965); the general premise of Babcock’s argument is one that fits very well with Heath-Stubbs’ experiment. Iago’s motives have been the cause of much scholarly debate and Heath-Stubbs offers us a potential solution: Iago is the wronged Malvolio, bearing a grudge as a result of his former humiliation.
The final poem to be considered is one in which one poet’s metaphor is adopted and expanded by another, and once again, it is a text which makes its intertextual reference explicit. There is no mistaking the source for Moving to Winter, given that Heath-Stubbs supplies both a name and the keywords necessary to locate the original poem: ‘Edmund Waller’s cottage of the soul’ (36). The dereliction of the dwelling stands for the decrepitude of an elderly body, fulfilling the convention ‘that one should attempt through semantic transformations to produce coherence on the levels of both tenor and vehicle’ (Culler, 1975: 134). As mentioned above, this is one of the conventions with which readers comply when interpreting a text and it is an example of the type of learned, rather than innate, knowledge which forms part of a reader’s literary competence. In comparing these two poems, the reader is required to engage with several metaphors on the theme of old age and the end of life. Waller’s title asks the reader to imagine the life-span of an individual measured by the number of pages in a book (but it should be noted also that an EEBO search reveals this verse to have been printed at the very end of a book). The first line of Heath-Stubbs’ poem comprises three different metaphors: life is represented as a journey in which the poet moves towards death; this is coupled with the conceit of one year representing a human life, where autumn is middle age and winter is old age; the third metaphor touches on Waller’s soul-cottage in the phrase ‘life-house’. In Old English, feorhhūs is ‘life-house’, or ‘body’, thus invoking a long tradition of verse and versifiers. As I hope to demonstrate, the figure of the poet is central to the hypertext.
Heath-Stubbs takes Waller’s ‘soul’s dark cottage’ metaphor as the theme of his poem, but there are some important differences. Heath-Stubbs drops the adjective ‘dark’ and substitutes ‘eternity’ for Waller’s ‘new light’. The binary opposition of dark and light in Waller is replaced in Heath-Stubbs with that of cold and warmth. The eternity which penetrates the holes of Heath-Stubbs’ cottage is ‘chill’, compared with the still-burning fire representing warm life and a means of providing sustenance in the form of toasted cheese to feed poems, the crickets ‘that chirp in the crannies’. Notable also is the shift from passive to active. Waller’s soul-cottage passively receives (‘Lets in’) the ‘new light’, but Heath-Stubbs’ eternity is an active agent which ‘shines through’ the chinks. Waller’s passivity is in keeping with the tranquil tone of the poem as the speaker draws near his end with stoicism and calm acceptance, embodied in the second stanza’s metaphor of quiet seas ‘when the winds give o’er’. Waller’s poem focuses on the wisdom gained in age and an imminent embrace of the ‘eternal home’, but there is nothing of this in Moving to Winter. Heath-Stubbs’ cottage/body may be falling into disrepair, but it is still providing shelter and warmth. Waller, in the penultimate year of his life, is writing pietistic verse in seventeenth-century tradition, and his focus is on the imagined life to come. His cottage is empty of the angels, ghosts and folkloric spirits which make up the ‘visitants’ of Heath-Stubbs’ cottage. Waller concerns himself for the most part with the passing of the ‘batter’d and decay’d’ body from one state to another, while Heath-Stubbs is focused on the life that remains to him.
Heath-Stubbs is not the only poet to have picked up on Waller’s metaphor. As an admirer of the Augustan poets (Heath-Stubbs, 1993: 209), Heath-Stubbs will undoubtedly have known that Waller’s lines were adapted by Alexander Pope in Book IV of The Dunciad. Pope imagines the body of the poet to be maimed and perforated by critics: ‘And you, my Critics! in the chequer’d shade, / Admire new light through holes yourselves have made’ (Pope, 1743). Pope’s poets put their critics in the shade, but the critics’ destructive activities create chinks through which they can themselves enjoy some of the sunshine. What both Pope and Heath-Stubbs have done is to identify the speaker specifically as a poet, and the light as a source of threat or attack. The poet-speakers do not welcome death, because their passing will deprive the world of their poetry.
This essay has explored Eliot’s 1920 description of bi-directional literary influence through discussion of the concept of intertextuality with reference to the poetry of John Heath-Stubbs. Intertextuality is a term whose scope ranges from Genette’s narrow distinctions (quotation, plagiarism, allusion) through to a poststructuralist plurality which encompasses every word of every text. Barthes’ author/reader was pitted against Eliot’s literary torch-bearer in an examination of the author’s role, after which the discussion turned to the notion of the ‘ideal reader’ who produces an ‘acceptable response’. The final section of the essay comprised an examination of several poems which make explicit their intertextual references, and readings were produced by way of demonstrating the response required from the reader to such references. I conclude by turning once again to Eliot’s claim that just as new works respond to and draw on the old, the perception of existing literature is affected by the arrival of the new. In the poems examined, the reader is encouraged to view the cyclops as a persecuted solitary being instead of a man-eating monster; Faustus and Prospero are merged into one, as are Malvolio and Iago, thus potentially eliciting a reappraisal of all four characters; and finally, Waller’s metaphor is adopted and expanded to incorporate the voice of a poet under attack.
List of references
Allen, G. (2000) Intertextuality, London: Routledge.
Avery, P. (ed.) (1978) In Honour of John Heath-Stubbs. Aquarius, 10.
Babcock, W. (1965) ‘Iago – An Extraordinary Honest Man’. Shakespeare Quarterly. 16(4): 297–301.
Barthes, R. (1977) ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press: 142-148.
Bennett, A. & Royle, N. (2009) An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 4th ed. Harlow: Pearson.
Culler, J. (1981) The Pursuit of Signs. London: Routledge.
Culler, J. (1975) Structuralist Poetics. London: Routledge.
Dick Turpin was a television series produced by London Weekend Television and screened in half-hourly episodes from 1979 to 1982. Richard O’Sullivan starred as the eponymous hero, with Michael Deeks as Swiftnick, Christopher Benjamin as Sir John Glutton and David Daker as Captain Nathan Spiker. I loved this series when I was a kiddy, and I’ve just acquired the DVD box set so I’m planning on writing a short post dedicated to each episode with a plot synopsis and commentary. I’ve even worked out how to make screenshots from the DVDs so there’ll be pics too, and I’m not going to pretend that most of them won’t be of Richard O’Sullivan looking gorgeous because that most certainly will be the case. He was my first celebrity crush and I adoooooooored him.
Richard Turpin was indeed a real person and you can read about his exploits here. The Turpin of the television series is a ‘Robin Hood’ type of character, who only steals from the rich and often shares what he has stolen with those less fortunate. As Swiftnick says in ‘The Imposter’, Turpin offers an opportunity for the poor ‘to drag [themselves] from the mire’. In addition, Turpin is a character who has turned to crime because his farm was stolen from him by Sir John Glutton while Turpin was away fighting for his country. But the real Turpin certainly wasn’t the noble hero depicted in the television series: he was a notorious highwayman and a murderer who was eventually hanged for his crimes. Fortunately though, most of us can tell the difference between real life and telly (some YouTube commenters excepted) and we know that this is just a bit of entertainment.
Dick Turpin Episode 1: Swiftnick in which our hero acquires a sidekick and reports of Turpin’s death are greatly exaggerated
Synopsis: Sir John Glutton plans to evict Mary Smith and her son Nick from The Black Swan inn where they hold tenure if they cannot pay twenty guineas in rent. Mary borrows the money from Dick Turpin, who holds up Sir John’s coach and takes the money back. Nick helps Turpin evade capture, but Nick himself is taken by Captain Spiker. Mary begs Turpin to rescue Nick and to let Nick ride with him as a highwayman. Turpin grudgingly agrees. Disguised as a doctor, Turpin tells Sir John that Nick has the plague. Turpin’s ruse is discovered by Spiker who arrives just as Turpin and Nick are about to make their escape, and a fight ensues. Turpin and Nick escape and the episode concludes with Turpin bestowing on his new sidekick the name of ‘Swiftnick’.
Commentary: In this, the first episode, everyone’s sort of finding their feet a bit – by which I mean ‘it’s not great’. The fights are very stagey and the scene in which Turpin and Mary are discussing Turpin’s past and Nick’s future in The Black Swan is uncomfortably like watching a filmed play, but this is in part owing to a pretty bloody awful performance on the part of Jo Rowbottom as Mary. She’s just terrible. The series improves rapidly, however, and this first episode is really just about providing expository information: who the characters are, Turpin’s tragic backstory as justification for his criminal activity, how Swiftnick becomes the sidekick, and so on.
The other point to mention is that there is genuine riding of horses: O’Sullivan, Deeks and Daker are all seen mounting and dismounting, with a bit of trotting too perhaps, although obviously the more dangerous riding scenes (and there are lots of them) are clearly performed by stand-ins. Nevertheless, the actors were clearly required to do some actual horse-riding themselves.
The key themes that emerge from this episode and that feature throughout the series are those of disguises, imposters, impersonators, and the use of Turpin’s name. Turpin is presumed dead at the beginning of the story, hanged for his crimes, but this turns out to be another man who used Turpin’s name to carry out his own acts of robbery and who eventually went to the gallows still professing to be Turpin. The most interesting moment of the episode comes when Nathan Spiker, who believes Turpin to be still alive, is explaining to Sir John Glutton why anyone would want to die in another’s stead. Spiker claims that the carnival atmosphere attending the execution of a celebrated criminal is such that the condemned man had to be Turpin to the end, to go out in a blaze of (someone else’s) glory. Even Nick Smith takes on Turpin’s name to steal the twenty guineas needed to pay the rent; unfortunately for him, the traveller he tries to rob is none other than Turpin himself. There is a kind of hero-worship that surrounds Turpin in as much as other would-be thieves are anxious to emulate him. And it is easy enough to pretend to be Turpin, when all the imposters have to do is pull a neck-tie up over their noses so the lower half of the face is obscured.
In this episode, Turpin ‘dies’ twice: first when another goes to the gallows for him, and second when Turpin disguised as the doctor announces that Turpin has perished of the plague. Turpin also appears in disguise twice: first as the traveller who unwisely flashes his money in The Black Swan (thus provoking Nick’s attempted robbery), and second as the doctor. It takes no more than a wig, a pair of spectacles and an unconvincing accent.