Some thoughts on ‘The Waste Land’

ezraThere are a multiplicity of voices in The Waste Land at any one time, which I have attempted to categorise below. The poem is informed by various religious and mythical texts: The Bible, the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, The Upanishads, Sybil and Tiresias from Greek and Roman texts, and, perhaps most important of all, the Grail Legend. Eliot makes numerous references to other literary texts; this category includes the self-referentiality of the poem itself in its various repetitions and parallelisms, and of course, Eliot’s own poetry (The Death of Saint Narcissus, the Sweeney poems, Dans le Restaurant). The poem features voices from the contemporary scene in its references to WWI, and, notably, songs from music-hall routines and American ragtime. There is birdsong from the nightingale, the hermit-thrush, a French cockerel, and the gulls of Part IV. There are voices from actual people now dead: Marie Larisch, ‘Mr Eugenides’ (whose proposition to Eliot in Part III was real), and Ellen Kellond, the Eliots’ housemaid, provided material for the scene in the public house. It has been suggested that Eliot himself and his first wife provide the voices in lines 111-138 (Southam, 1968: 160). There are the lines spoken by the characters of the poem, many of whom are imported from other literary texts and bring with them the voices from their original provenance. In addition to all this, there are numerous inarticulate speech-acts in which it is known that a speech act occurs, but the words themselves are unknown: chatter from the fish market, whispers, shouting and crying, ‘maternal lamentation’, voices from cisterns and wells, and this category can be stretched to include the ‘[s]ighs, short and infrequent’. The incessant noise of the cricket or the cicada is balanced against instances of the absence of sound: ‘the frosty silence in the gardens’ or the dry stone over which no water flows.

tseliot-300pxGiven this cacophony of voices, to identify a single protagonist as Edmund Wilson tries to do is to attempt to impose a level of coherence on the poem that it arguably does not have. Wilson’s efforts to single out a voice and construct a narrative sequence ending in the death of the ‘hero’ are, finally, unconvincing (Wilson, 1922). He wants a story with a beginning and an end – rather like a quest, such as the search for the Grail – but the fragmentary nature of the poem coupled with its frequent instances of repetition renders the whole more like a frozen moment in which all time is suspended. The presence of prophetic figures such as the Sybil and Tiresias, plus the fake fortune-teller Madame Sosostris, lends some weight to this reading.

ts-eliotThe literary references of The Waste Land operate a two-way effect in which the works alluded to infiltrate and resonate throughout Eliot’s lines; 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 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. This process can be exemplified through discussion of Eliot’s borrowing of Enobarbus’ words to describe Cleopatra: Eliot changes only three words of the first line and a half of Enobarbus’ speech, thus the reference is unmistakable. The domineering character of Cleopatra is transported into Eliot’s lines which, in their turn, emphasise the element of voyeurism inherent in the scene and question the nature of the relationship between art and artifice.

Eliot replaces Shakespeare’s ‘pretty dimpled boys’ with two ‘golden Cupidon[s]’, one of which is peeping and the other covers his eyes. The world clamours to get a glimpse of Cleopatra while Eliot’s Cupidons are not looking or not supposed to see. The crude sexual reference in ‘Jug Jug’ heard by ‘dirty ears’ underscores further the voyeuristic nature of the scene, and this theme is reworked in Part III when Tiresias foresees and vicariously participates in the sex act between the ‘young man carbuncular’ and the tired typist.

87ed4c641a82d5c5beecdb094a9c13a3The living boys are substituted for statues and Eliot’s description of them is therefore ekphrastic, as indeed, is this whole section of the poem from lines 77-106. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is herself reckoned to be even more beautiful than an artistic depiction of Venus which flatters the goddess. The comparison of art and artifice continues in the description of the artificial fragrances which feature heavily in the scene: Eliot’s perfumes are cloying and ‘synthetic’, producing a disorienting, narcotic effect which renders the senses ‘troubled, confused’, particularly when coupled with the refracted light from the many doubled reflections of candle-flames and jewels; similarly, the perfumes emanating from Cleopatra’s barge have an intoxicating effect not only on the humans present, but also on the wind itself. Enobarbus’ eloquent admiration of Cleopatra is unusually expressive for such a moderate character as he; Eliot’s re-working of the speech invites the possibility that Enobarbus is purposely drawing attention to the deliberately staged quality of Cleopatra’s famous entrance.

ts_eliot_3127864bThe Cleopatra equivalent herself, however, is not described in the parallel scene in The Waste Land. Instead, the focus switches to a painting displayed ‘[a]bove the antique mantel’ depicting Ovid’s story of the rape, mutilation and transformation of Philomela. The figure of Philomela features twice in Eliot’s poem at lines 99-103 and again in 203-206, the latter being a reference to Trico’s song in Lyly’s Campapse (Southam, 1968: 159). Philomela functions in the poem as an expression of the themes of sex and voyeurism. In Ovid’s story, Tereus mentally rapes Philomela before physically forcing himself upon her: ‘his mind’s eye shaped, / To suit his fancy, charms he’d not yet seen’ (Ovid, 1986: 136), both acts being witnessed also by the reader. Sex in The Waste Land is unsatisfactory, a duty or something to be endured (Lil and the typist), a profession (Mrs Porter and her daughter), or an act performed at the weekend with a stranger (Mr Eugenides). It is also barren and non-productive: Lil takes pills to induce a miscarriage in ‘A Game of Chess’, and in the Philomela story, the two sisters murder Itys, Procne’s son by Tereus, as an act of revenge. Eliot’s second reference to Philomela occurs immediately after the lines containing references to Eliot’s own Sweeney poems, a polite version of a bawdy WWI ballad (Southam, 1968: 168) and Paul Verlaine’s Parsifal. Sweeney appears here in his sexual character (’Sweeney Erect’), subject to the lust the Buddha preaches against in the Fire Sermon; Mrs Porter and her daughter are ‘notorious among Australian troops for passing on venereal disease’ (Southam, 1968: 168); Parsifal resists the temptation to sleep with the beautiful maidens put in his path and gains the Holy Spear with which he cures Amfortas, the Wounded King, who was seduced by Kundry and in consequence cursed with a wound that would not heal. Sex features in Eliot’s poem in terms of the violence of men, the seductive powers of women, and the danger of contracting disease through sexual contact; the rewards available to those who stay pure are encapsulated in the reference to Parsifal. In the wider context of the whole poem and the Grail legend which informs it, sex is at the heart of the misery experienced by the land and its inhabitants, all now laid to waste.

List of references

Eliot, T.S. (1940) The Waste Land and other poems. London: Faber and Faber.

Eliot, T.S. (1920) Tradition and the Individual Talent. The Sacred Wood: Essays on poetry and criticism. 42–53. Available at: [Accessed January 2, 2017].

Everett, D. (2015) Paul Verlaine’s Poem ‘Parsifal.’ Monsalvat: the Parsifal home page. Available at: [Accessed January 16, 2017].

Ovid (1986) Metamorphoses. E. J. Kenney (ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shakespeare, W. (1954) Antony and Cleopatra. M. R. Ridley (ed). London: Routledge.

Southam, B.C. (1968) A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot. 6th ed. London: Faber and Faber.

Wilson, E. (1922) The Poetry of Drouth. The Dial. 73: 611–616.

‘The Battle of Maldon’ and Byrhtnoth’s ‘ofermod’

‘What we must applaud is the poet’s selection of material which fits his structure and the presentation of his theme’. Is this a valid response to The Battle of Maldon

The Old English font employed throughout for particular characters is Junius by Peter S. Baker. Downloaded on 14 September 2016 from [Please note it has not been possible to accurately reproduce some characters, and the quotations appearing here in Anglo-Saxon should be verified against the original.] 

All translations my own except for the quotation from The Wanderer translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

The historical battle of Maldon took place in 991 and was one of numerous viking attacks in England in the later decades of the tenth century. The policy of paying the sums of money demanded by the vikings in return for peace did nothing to deter further attacks and resulted only in yet more demands for steadily increasing amounts, from £10,000 in 991 to £72,000 paid in 1018 (Keynes, 1991: 100). The Battle of Maldon is not an accurate historical account, but a literary composition intended to inspire its contemporary audience and provide a behavioural model to emulate. I focus on the critical debate surrounding Byrhtnoth’s ofermod and the necessity of assessing the meaning and implications of this word both in its context and according to the conventions of the heroic genre adopted by the poet. I discuss how alternative readings of ofermod can alter a perception of the poem’s structure, its overall effect and its purpose. As part of this discussion, I describe the relationship between lord and retainer according to the heroic code, and the role played by the poem in immortalising the battle’s participants. I suggest that the poem’s major theme is loyalty, and I have argued for a positive reading of ofermod which pinpoints the crux of the poem as Byrhtnoth’s death and Godric’s disloyal flight for the safety of the woods. Following this climactic moment, the rest of the poem sets up the behavioural model Godric should have followed and the fragment ends with the loyal retainers engaged in their heroic final stand.

Years of relative peace and prosperity had made England an attractive prospect to would-be Scandinavian invaders (Keynes, 1991: 84), and the battle which took place at Maldon was among the first of a series of attacks which meant that ‘the vikings maintained an almost constant presence in Æthelred’s kingdom’ (Keynes, 1991: 98). The invading forces demanded increasingly large sums of money or ‘tribute’ in return for peace, but the policy of paying tribute instead of mounting a military resistance was one which subjected the English people to ‘an intolerable burden of taxation’ and constituted an unsustainable drain on economic resources (Keynes, 1991: 99). Keynes suggests that The Battle of Maldon was composed ‘against the background of such a debate’ (1991: 91). The viking messenger in lines 29-41 sets out the argument for payment instead of bloodshed in battle, but Byrhtnoth’s spirited response is to offer tribute in the form of ‘gäras syllan / åttrynne ord and ealde swurd’, or ‘poison-tipped spear and seasoned sword’ (Baker, 2012: 230, lines 46b-47, all subsequent quotations taken from the same edition). It is not to be supposed, after E. D. Laborde, that the words of the battle’s participants have been accurately transcribed (Clark, 1968: 54); the Maldon poet has naturally invented the text of all the various monologues, which, as Pope notes, would be ‘implausible’ in a battle situation (2001: 76). Nevertheless, Byrhtnoth’s reply is in essence historically accurate. Tribute was refused and the vikings’ offer was met with resistance, and it is this heroic resistance which the Maldon poet sets out to celebrate.

The date of the composition of the poem is uncertain and opinion is divided as to whether the poem was written soon after the battle or some years later (Pope, 2001: 78). Scraggs adopts a position of sensible compromise when he suggests that the poem should be considered a contemporary account of the battle ‘until safe evidence of a later date is produced’ (1991: 32). The contemporaneity of the text should not, however, encourage the reader to mistake The Battle of Maldon for reportage (Clark, 1968: 54). Indeed, in noting the textual lack of specific strategic information, Pope suggests that ‘as a historical source the poem is a poor one’ (2001:76). The poet’s overall concern is not to provide the reader with an accurate military report of this crushing defeat for the English forces, but to depict events in a manner befitting a quite different agenda. The Battle of Maldon is a reimagining of the battle rendered according to the conventions of the heroic genre, and the poet’s role is that of ‘an omniscient narrator [who] judges the poem’s actions from a vantage point appropriate to heroic legend’ (Clark, 1968: 55). This nostalgic invocation of an ancient and more glorious past is made to serve a contemporary purpose: against the backdrop of an increasing number of similar viking attacks, the text provides a model of behaviour for the English armies to emulate. It is propaganda designed to inspire loyalty, to glorify those who fought to the end and to vilify those who fled.

Much of the debate surrounding the poem has centred on Byrhtnoth’s problematic ‘ofermöde’ in line 89 (Cavill, 1995; Clark, 1968, 1979; Gneuss 1976). If ofermod is to be understood as something akin to ’excessive pride’ (Baker, 2012: 348), it is difficult to reconcile the poet’s portrayal of Byrhtnoth as an otherwise faultless hero with the image of a vainglorious man who makes a disastrous tactical blunder that costs him his life and the lives of those who fought beside him. Moreover, it has been suggested that in accusing Byrhtnoth of having committed the sin of pride, the poet leaves him ‘in danger of damnation’ (Clark, 1979: 265), but this clearly runs counter to the poet’s objective of pitting the Christian Byrhtnoth, a man who prays for his soul at the point of death, against the pagan vikings, whose heathen status is spelled out as they cut Byrhtnoth down in line 181: ‘Ðä hine hëowon håðene scealcas’ (‘Then the heathen warriors cut him to pieces’). Byrhtnoth’s ofermod must be set in context. Clark criticises what he terms ‘the school of lexicographical criticism’ (1979: 276) and argues that ‘[t]he meaning of a word in a work can only be ascertained in its context; other contexts of the same and closely related words can only suggest, not determine, the significance of ofermode in Maldon’. Clark concludes after an extended discussion that ‘evidence for a “good sense” of ofermod exists, and in human languages speakers force new meanings on old words’ (1979: 280). It is true, however, that Anglo-Saxon scholars are disadvantaged in that they are working with a limited corpus of written material and the scope for lexicographical error is therefore greater. Gneuss observes that scholars ‘should patiently try to analyze the meaning of Old English words with the help of all available philological tools and all textual evidence, and…to avoid producing what Professor Robinson has very aptly called “a bit of literary criticism posing as lexicographical fact.” ’ (1976: 137). Nevertheless, the inherent and patently false assumption in this line of argument is that word-meaning is both fixed and constant according to its appearances in a concordance. Clark’s observation that language users develop the meaning of existing words through usage is particularly true of those who write in a literary register and it makes for an attractive argument in this instance: there is, after all, no reason why a poet should not adopt an existing word for new purposes, nor why a critical insight should not shed new light on the way in which a particular word has been used. This line of reasoning renders it necessary to consider the use of ofermod in context, and to examine the motivation behind Byrhtnoth’s decision in the light of the heroic genre adopted by the poet: ‘[t]he ofermod which impells [sic] Byrhtnoth to let the vikings cross the Pante is the same heroic spirit which drove him to choose battle instead of tribute; the second decision is implicit in the first’ (Clark, 1979: 71). Having committed to the battle, it is unlikely that Byrhtnoth will refuse the vikings’ request for safe passage, and simply wait for them to leave the scene only to launch an attack somewhere else. Whatever one may conclude about Byrhtnoth’s ofermod, and even if it was the poet’s intention to criticise his decision, the ‘reverence and admiration’ for the eorl is otherwise unequivocal (Pope, 2001: 78).

However, the tussle over the exact meaning of ofermod has greater ramifications than may at first appear. Critical opinion is divided over whether the poem – and the battle – turns on either the episode of Byrhtnoth’s ofermod in lines 89-90, or Byrhtnoth’s death and Godric’s subsequent flight in lines 181-201 (Clark, 1979: 259). Those who incline to a negative view of ofermod favour an interpretation in which the moment when Byrhtnoth allows safe passage to the vikings is pivotal to the structure of the poem, but in countenancing a more positive interpretation, Clark necessarily takes the view that Godric’s flight from the battlefield after Byrhtnoth’s demise clearly marks a decisive turning point in the action. In support of his argument, Clark points to Offa’s speech as confirmation that it is Godric’s cowardice which decides the eventual outcome of the battle: ‘Godric, the cowardly son of Odda, has deceived us all. Because he rode away on [Byrhtnoth’s] splendid mare, many men believed he was our lord and for this the army has become divided in the field, and the shield-wall broken’ (lines 237b-242a). Here the consequences of Godric’s flight are spelled out in detail for the poem’s audience, and Offa’s words are followed by the speeches of those who, according to the codes of honour and loyalty, remain on the battlefield and fight to the end, revealing in their own behaviour what Godric’s should have been. It is true that the English defeat is foreshadowed from the poem’s outset in such formulaic phrases as ‘þä hwïle þe hë mid handum healdan mihte / bord and bräd swurd’ (‘for as long as he might wield his shield and broad sword in his hands’, lines 14-15b) which naturally implies that the time will come when the warrior will no longer be able to hold his weapons, but Clark suggests that it is not until after Godric’s flight that the tone of the poem changes to one of ‘fighting without hope’ (1968: 57). Furthermore, Clark is keen to emphasise that even though Byrhtnoth allowed the vikings ‘landes tö fela’ (‘too much land’) in line 90, the outcome of the battle is not a foregone conclusion at this point. Gneuss attempts to pin down the actual historical size of the invading force the English were facing, but the confusion which exists in primary sources makes this an impossible task (1976: 133). The traditional view is that the English army was vastly outnumbered, but there is little, if anything, in the text to support this claim. The poem is, of course, only a fragment of the original text, but even if the numbers involved had featured in the missing lines, this does not constitute historical fact and cannot be taken as such. It should not be taken for granted, then, that in allowing the vikings safe passage, Byrhtnoth was necessarily dooming his men to destruction.

The argument so far can be summarised as follows. The way in which Byrhtnoth’s ofermod is understood is potentially crucial to a reading of the poem. If the pivotal moment of the poem is taken to be Byrhtnoth’s poor decision as a result of his ofermod, then everything that follows is merely the inevitable outcome of that early decision and the poem feels unbalanced. In a negative-ofermod reading, the poem is structured as follows: two opposing armies line up and verbally challenge one another, one over-confident leader throws away a tactical advantage as early as line 90, and the remaining 235 lines list those who were slaughtered, including the brash leader. Godric’s flight is rendered merely incidental. However, if a more positive, ‘heroic’ interpretation of ofermod is accepted, the poem’s turning point is identified as Byrhtnoth’s death and the emphasis switches to one of the poem’s most important themes: the loyalty owed to the lord by his retainers. Godric’s subsequent flight acquires both narrative and thematic weight as a result. The poem is now structured like this: a lord and his band of warriors (or ‘comitatus’, Scraggs, 1991: 33) refuse to submit to the demands of an invading force and prefer battle to paying tribute. Finding themselves at a tactical disadvantage, the vikings parley their way across the causeway; Byrhtnoth cannot ‘refuse the Viking request without failing in his duty’ (Clark, 1979: 258). Byrhtnoth fights bravely, but is killed in the ensuing battle. Godric, who is cowardly and disloyal, flees the battlefield on Byrhtnoth’s horse and many men follow him, believing Godric to be Byrhtnoth. The shield-wall is broken, the English army in disarray, and the action of the poem is henceforth concerned with extolling the virtues of those who choose to stay and die beside their fallen lord instead of running for the safety of the woods. This reading not only directly links structure to theme, but is more in keeping with the poem’s rhetoric which strongly favours honourable death over dishonourable cowardice; furthermore, this more positive reading is more appropriate also to the Maldon poet’s over-riding agenda: to inspire the beleaguered English to emulate an honourable tradition of heroism.

To fully understand the concept of loyalty as set forward by the Maldon poet, it is necessary to explore further the relationship between lord and retainer as understood in heroic literature. The comitatus system mentioned above was a ‘ “social contract” in which the lord bought the loyalty and the love of his followers with generous gifts, distributed at a feast when they vowed their allegiance publicly’ (Scraggs, 1991: 33). Such a feast is recalled by Ælfwine in lines 212-214 in words which are designed not only to inspire the men to honour their former vows, but to serve as a reminder of Byrhtnoth’s hospitality and the debt of loyalty owed to their fallen lord. Noblemen in Byrhtnoth’s position were expected to be generous with their gifts and are synonymously named in contemporary texts as ‘bëahgifa’ or ‘ring-giver’. In return for his gifts and hospitality, the lord expected loyalty: ‘[i]n the transaction of the gift, the object given – ring, armour, horse or weapon – becomes the material reminder of the retainer’s reciprocal obligation when war service or vengeance is required’ (O’Keeffe, 1991: 108). Against this background of comitatus, the depth of Godric’s dishonour is made manifest. His theft of Byrhtnoth’s horse is made all the more despicable because Byrhtnoth had in the past given Godric horses as gifts: ‘þone gödan forlët / þe him mænigne oft mearh gesealde’ (he ‘abandoned the good man who had given him many a horse’, lines 187b-188). Byrhtnoth’s generous gift of horses is repaid with theft of the same to compound Godric’s cowardly act.

O’Keeffe locates the ‘touchstone’ of heroic life in ‘the vital relationship between retainer and lord’ (1991: 107). To be lordless (‘hläfordlëas’, line 251), could mean isolation and dishonour, and the sorrow felt by one such lordless man is poignantly expressed in The Wanderer: ‘I mourn the gleaming cup, the warrior in his corselet, / the glory of the prince. How that time has passed away, / darkened under the shadow of night as if it had never been’ (Crossley-Holland, 1982: 52). When Byrhtnoth falls, variation across stressed alliterative lifts directs the listener’s attention to the pathos of the moment. Byrhtnoth is described in terms of the roles he held, and the poet spells out what he represented to the various groups named and what they have now lost: ‘Þä wearð äfeallan þæs folces ealdor, / Æþelrëdes eorl; ealle gesäwon / heorðgenëatas þæt hyra heorra læg’ (‘The army’s leader had fallen, Æthelred’s nobleman; everyone saw that the hearth-retainer, their lord was down’ lines 202-204). Byrhtnoth was a military leader, a civic ruler, a loyal subject, a friend, patron and host, and for all this he expected the loyalty of his men in return. It can be seen, then, that the lord-retainer relationship was central to heroic convention, and to return to the discussion of ofermod, O’Keeffe adds her voice to those who claim that Byrhtnoth’s ofermod is more likely to be viewed in a positive light if it is considered in its proper context: ‘the note of complaint which the text seems to make in lines 89-90 arises out of the nature of the code which it ascribes to Byrhtnoth and his loyal retainers. The realm of the heroic lies apart from the mundane, and the poem locates the nobility of the English precisely in their excess’ (1991: 123). Seen in this light, Byhrtnoth’s ‘excessive pride’ is what one would naturally expect from a man in his position.

To conclude, it should be noted that The Battle of Maldon has its own part to play in cementing the reputations of the English fighters: on the English side, heroes and villains alike are named, regardless of rank. It should not be forgotten that although the poem itself is a literary creation, the events described have their basis in historical fact and some of the men named can be positively identified as real individuals (Locherbie-Cameron, 1991: 238-249). In her discussion of heroic values, O’Keeffe notes that ‘[i]n the poetic articulation of the heroic ethos, a warrior’s paramount goal is the achievement of a lasting reputation’ (1991: 108). The Maldon poet bestows on the doomed men a succession of memorable monologues. Offa is permitted to denounce those who fled, thus ensuring their infamy, whilst Godric and his followers are denied a voice and the opportunity to explain their actions.

The ideals endorsed by the Maldon poet were not reflected in history. The attacks continued with ever-increasing ferocity and the scanty resistance put up by the English was plagued with treachery (Scraggs, 1991: 93). The viking onslaught eventually forced Æthelred to make a treaty with the Danish Cnut, who became England’s king after Æthelred’s death.

List of references


Baker, P.S. (2012) Introduction to Old English. (3rd ed.) Oxford: Blackwell.

Cavill, P. (1995) Interpretation of The Battle of Maldon, lines 84-90: a review and reassessment. Studia Neophilologica 67: 149–64.

Clark, G. (1979) The hero of Maldon: vir pius et strenuus. Speculum 54: 257–282.

Clark, G. (1968) The Battle of Maldon: a heroic poem. Speculum 43: 52–71.

Crossley-Holland, K. (Ed.) (1982) The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gneuss, H. (1976) The Battle of Maldon 89: Byrhtnoð’s ofermod Once Again. Studies in Philology 73(2): 117–137.

Keynes, S. (1991) The Historical Context of the Battle of Maldon. In D. Scragg. (Ed.) The Battle of Maldon AD 991. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 81–113.

Locherbie-Cameron, M.A.L. (1991) The Men Named in the Poem. In D. Scragg. (Ed.) The Battle of Maldon AD 991. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 238–249.

O’Keeffe, K.O. (1991) Heroic values and Christian ethics. In M. Godden & M. Lapidge. (Eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 107–125.

Pope, J.C. & Fulk, R.D. (Eds.) (2001) Eight Old English Poems. (3rd ed.) New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Scragg, D. (1991) The nature of Old English verse. In M. Godden & M. Lapidge. (Eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 55–70.

Scragg, D. (Ed.) (1991) The Battle of Maldon AD 991. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

The ideology lurking behind reviews

In this post, I examine three reviews and question the assumptions that are brought to bear in order to ascertain whether or not the performance reviewed is considered ‘good’ or not.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett perform live in Atlantic City

Review 1 from Billboard by Joe Lynch

This review is of a concert in Atlantic City featuring Lady Gaga, one of the highest-earning artists of the 21st century, and Tony Bennett, veteran performer and founder of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Perhaps Bennett’s presence on stage rendered inevitable the type of review produced, but this piece is steeped in nostalgia. The review radiates a certainty that popular music and its performance used to be of a higher quality than it is now, claiming that ‘concerts grounded in musical talent’ are ‘rare’ these days. Lynch’s piece focuses on the rapport between the two performers, the enthusiasm of the crowd and Lady Gaga’s solo performance of La Vie en Rose. Lynch’s emphasis on the ‘astonished’ reaction of the audience to the latter has as its subtext the suggestion that today’s singers lack the talent to sing the old songs; Bennett – one of the old-time singers – is described in hyperbolic terms as still having ‘one of the greatest voices on the planet’. The review ends with details of what Lady Gaga did after the show and the attempts of her fans to obtain photographs, which is a testament to the cult surrounding this popular figure and our increasing fixation with celebrities and celebrity status.

lady-gaga-tony-bennett-new-jersey-atlantic-city-july-2015-billboard-650x650The performance, therefore, is a ‘good’ one because it evoked past times. It is compared with present-day concerts in order to voice an unfavourable opinion of the modern-day lack of rapport between artists sharing a stage, and the concert is evaluated through the rapport between the performers involved, the audience reaction and the quality of the vocal performances. The material performed is listed without comment, with the implication that its superior standard is a given. The performance is treated as entertainment, with (for example) its descriptions of the banter between the performers, but the music performed clearly has a status approaching that of high art due in part to its continuing appeal and existing longevity.

Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Review 2 from The Telegraph by Dominic Cavendish

This reviewer describes Marlowe’s text as an ‘epic 1594 tragedy’ and considers this production a ‘modish’ version. Cavendish writes for The Daily Telegraph, a very conservative publication, so it is perhaps not surprising that this word (‘modish’) should sum up his entire attitude to the performance. Cavendish describes the production as ‘borderline forgettable’ in its original 2013 version and opines that this 2016 revival ‘verges on being totally incomprehensible in this dismally conceived rehash’. The reason for this animosity would appear to be that Acts 3 and 4 are deleted ‘on the grounds that audiences don’t relate to this less accomplished (and likely not sole-authored) central section’. Cavendish describes what is put in place of these acts, but he does not evaluate further; he comments instead on Kit Harrington’s celebrity status and suggests that his fans may feel ‘bamboozled’ (although it is not clear why this should be so). The rewrite is ‘hip but slack’, to which Cavendish adds the apparently unqualified comment that ‘the emphasis is on de-anchoring the original text from its customary moorings’. In the wider context of the review, I assume this latter comment to be a negative evaluation. Cavendish seems determined to rate the production on the level of a B-movie in his use of the simile ‘like staring apparitions from a low-rent zombie flick’. On Harrington’s delivery, Cavendish comments that he is ‘competent and clear but hardly a match for Marlowe’s mighty line, lacking sufficient fervour and meaningful interiority’. I’m not quite sure what this means, or what sort of delivery would satisfy Cavendish’s expectations.

2523194b-jon-snow-arts-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8The performance, therefore, is rated ‘bad’ because the original text was altered, ostensibly to meet the requirements of a 21st century audience. It is compared with B-movies and Game of Thrones, both examples of popular entertainment, and the set is likened to Willesden Junction. The performance is rated in comparison with the original text and analysed in terms of its departure from it. Overall, this production is firmly categorised as entertainment in comparison with the original text which is high art. Cavendish clearly considers the show to be the cheapest kind of entertainment – a star vehicle with gratuitous sex scenes – to titillate an audience who would struggle with anything more demanding. The reviewer demonstrates a solidly reactionary response and an unwillingness to examine any potential interest raised by this particular interpretation.

The Taming of the Shrew at The Globe Theatre

Review 3 from Londonist by Savannah Whaley

The Taming of the Shrew is a notoriously difficult play to stage for a modern audience. The BBC series Shakespeare Re-Told addressed the play’s issues by rewriting Katherine (Shirley Henderson) as an MP, and later the PM, so although she eventually bends to the will of Rufus Sewell’s eccentric Petruchio (whom she genuinely comes to love), she does so from a position of the most powerful person in the country. In 1978 Michael Bogdanov produced a feminist Shrew, with a Katherine finally destroyed by a patriarchal society; Bogdanov argued that this reading is inherent in the play, claiming that Shakespeare asks for ‘an egalitarian society of equal rights and opportunity’ (Dollimore & Sinfield, 1994: 197). Whaley is not so generous to Shakespeare, although she does conclude her review with a comment that identifies inequality as one of the themes of the play. The production is set in 1916 Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising and thus takes as its context an occasion when women were once again denied the same rights accorded to men. This decision, states the reviewer, is ‘impossible to ignore’.

taming_of_shrew_second-309-jpg_captioned_3The performance, with its clear message and unmistakably feminist agenda, is considered to be good, in spite of a negative comment relating to the first half of the show. It is compared to other productions less brutal; Whaley describes Katherine as being beaten onstage and suggests that this abuse is ‘generally left off’, but such physical abuse is surely an addition on the part of this particular director and does not feature in the text itself. The performance is evaluated through the way in which it addresses the abuse of women and their unequal status in society in its chosen 1916 context. Finally, this production is treated as high art, and moreover, as art that is important because it seeks to educate and to highlight a societal problem.

Reference: Dollimore, J. and Sinfield, A. (Eds.) (1994) Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. 2nd ed. Manchester University Press: Manchester.

Criticism and the Literary Canon: Wordsworth vs. Hemans

Felicia Hemans

In an online discussion of the subject of Felicia Hemans’ place in the literary canon, Jonathan Mulrooney comments that ’Hemans was incredibly popular in her day, and she wrote some fine poetry; students need to know about it. But even if we could imagine a world in which the methods of exegisis [sic] that value Wordsworth over Hemans and those that value Hemans over Wordsworth had equal power, would we really want to live there? I honestly am not sure’ (Romantic Circles, 1997). Mulrooney imagines a world in which all forms of critical discourse are equally valid, thereby rendering useless any attempt to distinguish the ‘good’ writers from the ‘bad’. According to this line of reasoning, the existence of a literary canon can therefore be justified: at best, a canon celebrates that which is worthy of study and closes the floodgates against a deluge of mediocrity. At worst, however, a canon can be used as a tool of oppression, excluding from educational syllabi those whom the canon’s overseers do not wish to be read. Traditionally, this darker side of the canon has eclipsed female writers (such as Hemans), writers from different races, LGBT writers, and so on.

(c) The Wordsworth Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
William Wordsworth; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to claim that canons are static: this is not true. Canons are subject to constant revision, as is evident in the case of both Felicia Hemans and William Wordsworth. Wordsworth is indeed a canonical writer, but opinion has shifted since the Victorian era as to which of his works should be read, and (for example) The Prelude has replaced The Excursion. Hemans, on the other hand, was a prolific and widely-read writer during her lifetime, but her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography describes how she was cast aside by the modernist movement and left unread until a shift in critical attitudes in the second half of the twentieth century led to a resurgence of interest in her work. Feminist and historicist critics argue that Hemans is an important ‘critic of conventions such as patriotism and female self-sacrifice’ (ODNB, 2008) and that her place in the canon should be assured.

There is an argument, however, that the inclusion in the canon of previously excluded writers because their work touches on a contemporary concern amounts to being intellectually dishonest, but Alan Liu counter-argues that the line drawn between ‘good’ poetry and poetry ‘valued for historical, political, [or] gender’ reasons is absolutely artificial. He suggests that ideas about the values of poetical form are inextricably intertwined with whatever happens to be the accepted prevailing notions of ‘universal’ or ‘timeless’, but these same notions are themselves so complicated and culturally imbued that we can only examine them through the discourse of formal criticism (Romantic Circles, 1997). This being the case, we are still in the world feared by Mulrooney, where no existing critical apparatus can reliably differentiate between good and bad poetry.

Chuck Rzepka appears to offer a solution in the form of traditional poetics (although oddly enough, he simultaneously denies that this kind of analysis has any interest for today’s critics). Rzepka claims to value poets who use ‘pitch, accent, rhythmic and metrical variation, figure (of speech or of thought), image, stanza, form, genre, tradition, persona, allusion…besides…invention, characterization, plot, [and] dialogue’. Naturally, as Rzepka makes clear, the presence alone of such devices can hardly constitute an adequate test for ‘good’ poetry: what counts is ‘how well they are used and to what effect’ (Romantic Circles, 1997). How we are to measure the use and effectiveness of poetic devices, however, remains a mystery with which canon revisionists are constantly employed.

Some of the points explored above can be exemplified by a comparison of Hemans’ ‘Indian Woman’s Death-Song’ with Wordsworth’s ‘The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman’. Both poems represent the final lament of a native American Indian woman, but the ‘complaint’ (in the poetic sense) of Wordsworth’s character, abandoned in a cold, silent and comfortless landscape, has otherwise little in common with Hemans’ wild, watery and noisy swansong. Death is imminent for both women, but the nature of these deaths differs according to the landscape in which each woman is placed: Hemans invokes the drama of a broad river in a thick forest as the canoe containing the woman and her (female) child approaches a cataract, whilst Wordsworth’s solitary figure lies prone beside the frozen ashes of a dead fire, her (male) child having been taken along with the woman’s erstwhile travelling companions. The variance in thematic presentation reflects the differing agendas of each poet. Hemans writes a female character who welcomes death in the face of her husband’s desertion and ingratitude, taking her tiny daughter with her so that she might be spared a similar fate. Writing in an age in which a previously unprecedented number of female readers were constantly exposed to an ideal of womanhood which, in Havelock Ellis’ phrase, was ‘a cross between an angel and an idiot’ (Cunningham, 1989: 96), Hemans creates a female character who actively seeks her own demise as a means of rejecting in her turn the masculine world which has rejected her. She issues impatient imperatives to the river, commanding it to ‘roll on!’, and even her hair waves in joyous anthropomorphic triumph. Wordsworth, however, uses the scenario of the dying woman to attempt an artistic portrayal of conflicting internal voices at a moment of crisis. Stephen Bidlake argues convincingly for the merits of Wordsworth’s poem with reference to a framework of Bakhtinian dialogism, in which the woman ‘participate[s] in the dynamism of real speech situations’ (1982: 188). As she considers her predicament and questions events which have led to her impending death, ‘a second voice is heard in the “hidden dialog” that emerges in those words which contain a tacit reference to an alternate viewpoint, such as the anticipation of an unvoiced objection or the implication of an unasked question’ (1982: 189). Bidlake’s ingenious and imaginative reading is in one sense a kind of ‘authoring’ of Wordsworth’s poem: through his critical response, Bidlake uses Bakhtin’s work to express that which Wordsworth arguably does not. Scholarship such as this can breathe life into literary works, but if, for example, such scholarship is vital to the work’s continued presence in anthologies, then the role played by critical writing in canon formation and revision must be carefully examined. Every choice must be questioned if the canon is to be a useful instrument rather than an oppressive one.

List of references 

Bidlake, S. (1982) ‘Hidden Dialog’ in ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman’. The Wordsworth Circle 13(4): 188-193.

Cunningham, G. (1989) The nineteenth-century novel. In: M. Lynne-Davies, ed., Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 93-112.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (2008) Felicia Hemans. [Online] May 2008. Available from: [Accessed: 23 December 2016]

Romantic Circles. (1997) Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon: An Online Discussion. [Online] July 1997. Available from [Accessed: 23 December 2016]

The poems discussed in this post can be found via the following links:

William Wordsworth: The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman

Felicia Hemans: Indian Woman’s Death-Song

Reading Challenge 2016: I haven’t forgotten about it

Reading Challenge 2016

I haven’t forgotten about the 2016 Reading Challenge – I just haven’t been very diligent about writing it up. Truth be told, though, I’m behind with the reading, and given that it’s mid-November, I think this is going to turn into a challenge for next year as well as this one, but THAT’S OKAY and I’m not going to beat myself up about it BECAUSE it occurred to me last week when I was attending a conference at Sheffield Hallam that I’ve done very little reading this year outside the confines of my MA course. I read all the time, but I’m reading books about books rather than just books (if you see what I mean). For example, at present I’m reading John Guillory’s Cultural Capital because I have a unit coming up which focuses on the literary canon. It’s an interesting but difficult book: I’m reading at frustration level a lot of the time, but I understand just about enough to persevere with it. It is a shame, though, that studying for a literary-linguistic degree means I’m struggling to make time for a bit of the actual reading-for-pleasure. Trouble is that when I want to relax, reading isn’t my activity of choice right now: I’ve been reading all day, I say to myself, and now all I want to do is listen to that Pink Martini CD and paint pots.

A pot I painted instead of reading

So, this is a sort of cheat of a blog post because actually I’m just going to recap where I’ve got to with the reading challenge and list all the stuff I still have to read.

Okay. So. The image above lists the twelve categories for the challenge. I’ve already written about A Book Published Before You Were Born and A Book You Can Read In A Day, but that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m waiting until the end of the year until I make my choice for A Book Published This Year, but I’ve chosen titles for all the other categories and  I’ve listed these with notes below.


A Book You’ve Been Meaning To Read

Well, actually, I haven’t decided this one. But my bookshelves are full of books that I’ve been meaning to read, so I could put LITERALLY ANYTHING here and it wouldn’t make any difference.

A Book Recommended By Your Local Librarian Or Bookseller

The Chimes by Anna Smaill. Yes, I have a copy. No, I haven’t read it yet.

A Book You Should Have Read In School

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I also have to read The Ambassadors for my course, so 2016 is clearly my year for reading Henry James. Plus, see below…

A Book Chosen For You By Your (etc.)

The etc. denotes that I roundly rejected the book chosen for me by my sibling, which was A A Gill’s Pour Me: A Life (sorry Tif) and have chosen instead a book recommended by a friend. I just couldn’t get on with Gill. I found his overwritten and self-indulgent prose quite nauseating, and then I read somewhere that he murdered a baboon just to find out what it was like to kill. Gill is in the news this morning because he’s announced that he has cancer, but I don’t care. My sympathy lies with that poor baboon. For this category, I’ve chosen instead The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, and I have read this and I ENJOYED IT! I’ve been meaning to write a post about Spoils and ekphrasis, but, you know…it’s coming. It’s coming.

A Book That Was Banned At Some Point

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. My Significant Other is always nagging me about not having read this. It is (apparently) an unacceptable gap in my knowledge. Okay, fine, I’ll read it. I’ve bought a copy. I haven’t read it yet.

In case you’re wondering why it was banned, the Wikipedia page for banned books tells us that Alice was

Formerly banned in the province of Hunan, China, beginning in 1931, for its portrayal of anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings. The censor General Ho Chien believed that attributing human language to animals was an insult to humans. He feared that the book would teach children to regard humans and animals on the same level, which would be “disastrous”.

A A Gill would probably agree with General Ho Chien’s sentiments, but I don’t, and I suspect that baboon didn’t either. Oh, and by the way Ho Chien! Your name is French for dog.

A Book You Previously Abandoned

Oh god. This is Nabokov’s Pnin. I started it – and it is wonderful – but I’m a very anxious person and this book is an absolute nightmare for those of us who worry all the time about journeys going wrong, things getting lost, important stuff getting left behind, etc. This book is like all my anxiety nightmares rolled into one big fat sweaty never-ending anxiety horror film.

A Book You Own But Have Never Read

I’ve done this one! I read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and it was bloody awful. It helped me remember why I avoid nineteenth-century fiction. Proper blog post to follow. In due course.

A Book That Intimidates You

Ah, now, I’m going to have a go at House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I’ve never read anything like this before, plus it’s HUGE. But given the way my literary interests are leaning these days, I think this is a must-read.

(What’s the Z for? Is it for real or is it a pose?)

A Book You’ve Already Read At Least Once

I could cheat with this one because I had to re-read Titus Andronicus as part of my course, but I’m going to stick with my original choice of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, just because Gibbons’ book is enormous fun. I’m saving this one for the Christmas holiday.

Ta-dah! All my procrastinatory effort laid out before you in block quotes. There’ll be more to follow. I’ll get back to you on this.