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.
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.
(The 2016 Reading Challenge: A Book Published Before You Were Born. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and I was definitely born after that.)
I found a copy of Comyns’ novel in a charity shop, and bought it for its attention-grabbing title and beautiful cover – a reproduction of Stanley Spencer’s Marriage at Cana: Bride and Bridegroom (pictured above) – and very glad I am too that I managed to pick up this particular edition, because the newly repackaged Viragos are just hideous.
See what I mean? More Barbara Pym than Barbara Comyns, I would say. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked Excellent Women, but I’m not champing at the bit to read anything else by Pym, whereas I’ve already put in orders for Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (the latter title is a quotation from Longfellow’s The Fire of Drift-wood).
There are quite a few reviews for Our Spoons Came From Woolworths on the interweb-thingy, all largely focused on the same points. To begin with, the book’s reviewers claim that it is mostly autobiographical in spite of its disclaimer, and there is certainly more than a passing similarity between the life of the fictional Sophia and that of her creator. Both married a fellow artist, both suffered extreme poverty, both left their husbands and worked as part of the domestic staff in a country house. However, the disclaimer states that
The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty
My feeling is that it’s probably best not to overdo the biographical reading, especially as Comyns has asked you not to. But – and this is another point on which all the reviews agree – Comyns is plain in her wish that special attention be paid to the three chapters mentioned. These chapters deal with the birth of her first child and the absolutely appalling treatment to which she was subjected. Her fictional counterpart, Sophia, is only 21 years old and extremely frightened. In fact, and in reference to the reviews again, Sophia seems initially to have a fairly hazy notion of how babies are created in the first place and certainly has no idea how to prevent conception:
I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control.
The blame for her repeated pregnancies is laid very squarely at her door by her husband Charles and his awful mother, Eva:
She didn’t seem to think it was Charles’ baby – only mine, because later on, when I was upstairs putting on my coat, she kissed me quite kindly, but spoilt it by saying ‘I shall never forgive you, Sophia, for making my son a father at twenty-one.’
How dismal it must have been to be female in the 1930s. And this is before the NHS, of course, so to add insult to injury, Sophia had to find the money to pay for her wretched hospital birth. Once admitted, she is given an enema and a ‘large dose of castor oil’, which combine to render her helpless with sickness and diarrhoea. The nurses reprimand her every time she makes a mess and accuse her of having ’disgusting habits’. Sophia begins to feel that she has committed a criminal act in having a baby and is humiliated by the whole depressing experience:
they made me put my legs in kind of slings that must have been attached to the ceiling; besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully ashamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal.
Of course, the ghastly Charles can barely tolerate the child at all. Sophia tells us that
I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from.
I often heard the threat ‘I’ll kick you into the middle of next week’ when I was a kiddie and I always found this idea rather interesting, that a boot up the bum could be such a hearty one that the recipient would be propelled forward not only in space, but also in time, to arrive next Wednesday. That’s exactly what I’d like to do to selfish, narcissistic, lazy, pointless Charles.
The story of Sophia’s early life is a woeful one, but apart from the chapters discussed here so far, it is told with such lightness of touch and such humour that it is a very amusing book. I wondered how this could have been achieved and pondered the sense of temporal distance that characterises the novel. I had already noted the lack of direct speech which Sophia herself comments on at the beginning of chapter nine: there is indeed some direct speech, but mostly the reader is following Sophia’s own account of events, and spoken utterances are generally rendered in indirect speech as they are filtered through Sophia’s voice. Sophia relates her tale to us exactly as she does to her friend Helen, which gives us the framing device for the story. There is slightly more to it than this, however. My understanding of the novel is that the distance is created because there is no second Sophia, the Sophia-narrator of the past. There is only the Sophia of the present, which explains why everything can be told so simply, with emotional reactions boiled down to bald statements such as ‘I felt very sad’ or ‘I was happy’. While the Sophia of the present day can remember that at such-and-such a period she was indeed very happy or very sad, she cannot describe her emotions as fully as she would have done at the time.
To clarify this further, let’s consider another semi-autobiographical novel such as David Copperfield. There are at least two narrators: the David of the present day, the one who is telling the story, and the David of the past, the one who is living the story. These two Davids are the same character, but two different enactors, because they exist in different time periods and one is older and knows much more than the other. But when the events of the novel are described, they are told from the younger David’s point of view and presented to the reader as the events are being experienced. And this, it seems to me, is the difference between Comyns’ novel and the conventions of biographical novels that one has come to expect. The tale is told by the present-day Sophia and there is no younger Sophia-enactor. This would account for the ever-present sense of distance.
The novel by no means suffers as a result of this device, however. On the contrary, it is refreshing – and no less emotionally charged for not giving way to lengthy lamentation. The reader is a human being after all, and is perfectly well equipped to imagine how Sophia must have felt without having it carefully spelt out.
Only one thing puzzles me: what happened to the war? The story is set in the 1930s and Sophia is relating events from a distance of eight years, so World War II must be in there somewhere. Sophia lives in London, leaving aside her three-year sojourn in the countryside, so must have noticed that there was a nasty war going on. But now I come to think of it, I’m not sure there is anything in the novel which definitively states that the events depicted actually are set in the thirties, although it is confidently claimed that this is the case in the blurb. Comyns herself spent the war working as a cook in a Hertfordshire country house.
I don’t know what to make of this, so at this point, I think we have to recall that Comyns told us quite plainly that apart from certain sections, this story isn’t true. A weedy cop-out on my part, I know. Everything else about the book tells you that the narrator shares the world we live in, but how to account for this huge chunk of missing history? Ah well. Virginia Woolf happily left the war out, as noted by a disapproving Katherine Mansfield.
What follows is my answer to an exercise on transitivity patterns for the MA Literary Linguistics programme on which I’m enrolled. This post is probably not going to be particularly readable unless you’re familiar with transitivity patterns – however, I’ve uploaded a pdf of a mindmap I made which may help. You might have to zoom in on the pdf to make parts of it legible. If you’d like to browse some original sources, you’ll need to look up Michael Halliday and read his work.
Transitivity mindmap pdf below. The examples of each process are taken from John Braine’s Room at the Top, but these are examples I’ve picked out myself, so please be wary: I’m not altogether sure I’ve really understood the difference between an attributive and an identifying process, so best treat the examples with caution.
I’ve reproduced below Sonnet 116 in full…and you might remember Marianne (Kate Winslet) reciting part of it after she’s been heartlessly dumped by Willoughby (Greg Wise) in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Which type of process is dominant in the poem, or does the poem mix different types?
The poem consists of a mixture of different transitivity types.
There is a speaking voice in the sonnet, an ‘I’ or a ‘me’, whose presence is most noticeable in lines 1-2, 5 (‘O no’), and 13-14; on a discourse level, therefore, the sonnet in its entirety could be understood as a mental externalised process in which the SAYER is the I/me of the poem, the VERBIAGE is the text of the sonnet, and the TARGET is the reader/audience (Simpson, 1993: 90). Simpson’s PROCESS is absent but understood, owing to considerations of form. There is no novelistic reporting clause such as ‘said the poet’.
The other processes involved are material action processes of both intention and supervention; relational processes and a mental internalised perception process (‘That looks on tempests’).
Labelling the processes is a difficult exercise in this case because much of the poem’s transitivity involves a metaphorical blend in which a personified abstract concept takes on the role of animate ACTOR, and in addition, much of the ‘action’ of the poem is actually inaction. Moreover, the poem contains many expressions of negativity (not, never, no, nor…ever), which complicates matters further.
Who is the main actor or agent in the poem?
The ACTORs are:
•’I/me’ (the speaker of the poem);
•‘love’as abstract concept until the third quatrain when it appears as a personification;
•possibly no man in the final line, but there is ambiguity here. The words ‘nor no man ever loved’ could be taken to mean ‘I have never loved a man’ as well as ‘no man has ever been in love’. This depends on whether we understand ‘no man’ to be the ACTOR, or whether we consider the subject to be ‘I’still, carried over from ‘I never writ’: it could be argued that the subject of the following phrase has been removed, but that ‘I’ is understood.
‘Love’ is the CARRIER of the poem’s attributive processes, and the IDENTIFIED of its identifying processes.
Who or what receives all the action?
The action is distributed between the ACTORs, but it should be noted that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the material action intention processes actually refer to an action not being performed. Love as an abstract noun or personification is associated with that which is fixed, permanent and immovable. Any action attributed to Love is that of inaction, and movements such as altering and bending are associated with Love’s antithesis, ‘not love’. This call to inaction reflects the desire expressed in the first line of the sonnet that the poet should not ‘admit impediments’ to ‘the marriage of true minds’: namely, that the poet wishes to do nothing to hinder true love.
Is there a pattern for processes and participants in main clauses, compared with the pattern in subordinate clauses?
Main clauses tend to feature relational processes, and the claim made by way of this process is explored further in the subordinate clauses through material action processes, either intention or supervention.
How can your annotated analysis help to support your sense of the meaning of the poem?
In the opening lines of the sonnet, the speaker exhorts someone to prevent him or herself from embarking on a certain course of action. The remark could, of course, be self-directed – a ‘note to self’ not to act as described. It is the equivalent of a theatrical soliloquy, in which an actor shares his or her thoughts with the audience. The speaker expresses his/her desire not to act, or not to behave in a certain way, and one can see that throughout the rest of the poem the transitivity patterns support this call to inaction. Love is something fixed, immovable and enduring, whilst its antithesis (‘not love’) ‘alters’ and ‘bends’ when provoked to do so.
Having begun the sonnet with this exhortation, the speaker makes an abrupt switch in line 2 to an exploration of what love is not (and, by implication, what it is):
…; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Here a main clause contains two subordinate clauses, both relative, the second a reduced relative clause because ’which’ has been removed, but is understood. The transitivity of the main clause is that of a relational process, incorporating two material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where these latter processes are in themselves a metaphorical blend involving an inanimate abstract concept as ACTOR.
The relational process of the main clause is set against the material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where the ACTOR ‘not love’ intentionally alters or bends according to circumstances. Put bluntly, action is bad, inaction is good: a ‘still’ process encloses two action processes in which the participants behave in a way that would suggest this is not ‘a marriage of true minds’.
The morphological variations of the action-words enact the changes they describe: ‘alters’ (verb) becomes ‘alteration’ (noun); ‘the remover’ (determiner + noun) becomes ‘to remove’ (verb in infinitive). The change expressed in these two lines (‘alters’, ’bends’) is reflected on a different textual level in the changing word-formations.
In the second quatrain (lines 5-8), the poet moves the discussion on from what love is not, to what love is, and love as an abstract concept is explored through metaphors related to shipping. Once again, the action expressed in the material action intention processes is in fact inaction, and the abstract concept as ACTOR provides a metaphorical blend. Love, expressed as a ‘ever-fixèd mark’, is immobile in the face of a raging sea-storm and immovable regardless of the storm’s violence.
The nautical metaphor continues into the second half of the second quatrain, and love is now a ‘star’, most likely the ‘northern star’ or ‘Pole Star’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342). The star, like the ‘ever-fixèd mark’, serves as a guide to those who are lost (the ‘wandering bark’). The transitivity of line 8 is an attributive process, where the CARRIER is love (personified and metaphorically expressed), and the ATTRIBUTE is ‘of unknown worth’, in other words, invaluable or priceless. This same line balances that which cannot be measured (‘Whose worth’s unknown’) against that which can (‘although his height be taken’). The latter phrase extends the metaphorical references to shipping and navigation: ‘ “take height” was a regular term in navigation and astronomy’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342).
A star is fixed just as the ‘mark’ is fixed, and neither mark nor star can move. In addition, the measurement of the star’s height presumably represents a straight line, which is in contrast to the bending manifested by the ‘not love’ ACTOR and by Time’s sickle in the third quatrain.
The word ‘bends’ from line 4 reappears in one of its lemma forms as ‘bending’, and again, this word is associated with that which is not permanent and which is not love. The transitivity process here is a material action supervention process describing the appearance and action of Time’s scythe scooping up the ‘rosy lips and cheeks’ that are associated with youth and transience, and which serve metonymically here for the whole person. The word ‘compass’ will recall the shipping metaphor of the previous quatrain even though the sense is different here; nevertheless, ‘compass’ shares the same semantic field with the ‘star’ and the ‘wandering bark’.
In lines 11-12, Love as personification is involved in two material action intention processes in a metaphorical blend with a personified ACTOR, as follows:
ACTOR = Love (in personified form)
PROCESSES = 1) alters not, 2) bears it out.
When Love is finally involved in a transitivity process involving action, that action is to stay the same and to do nothing.
The sonnet ends with a rhetorical trick expressed as a hypothetical question which allows no disagreement. The reader has just read the sonnet written by the poet, so ‘I never writ’ is nonsensical in context, and given that this half of the line is untrue, then the second half (‘nor no man ever loved’) is also assumed to be untrue. The transitivity processes may well be those of material action intention process, but as seen several times before, the action referred to represents inaction – in this instance, not writing and not loving. However, because both statements are untrue, the action becomes a positive event: the poet did write the sonnet, people have loved each other, and therefore love must exist as the poet has described it.
List of references
Duncan-Jones, K. (Ed.) (1997) Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: The Arden Shakespeare.
Simpson, P. (1993) Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge.
At the beginning of Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent, Fleur Talbot sits in a graveyard writing a poem. Critics have leapt on this with glee, crying out that that’s probably what Muriel Spark herself did! Well, possibly. Big deal. I mean, who hasn’t sat in a graveyard writing a tortured poem? That’s just what every teenager does, isn’t it? And twenty-odd years ago I’m afraid I did exactly this (although thankfully the poem is now lost) and I was listening to Toyah Willcox’s Anthem album as I did so.
I’ve had the idea for this post bubbling on the hob for a couple of weeks now, ever since I re-discovered that particular album on Spotify. I last saw Toyah on the telly lisping her way through a deodorant ad and I’d forgotten all about her, but having been reminded of that purple cassette tape I cherished all those years ago, I can see now, from a distance of more than two decades, exactly why it was that her music was so captivating to me as a moody Don’t-Know-Who-I-Want-To-Be teenager. Before going any further, I should point out that I’m writing as someone who knows very little about punk rock – if that is indeed what Toyah wrote – but I was very good at being a gauche and maladroit teenager and I think I might be onto something here.
Leaving aside the more obvious appeal of sentiments such as ‘So what if I dye my hair? I’ve still got a brain, I’m there and I’m gonna be me’ from I Want To Be Free, Toyah’s lyrics often conjure up a nightmarish landscape of hostile bleakness, peopled with fantastic, monstrous creatures. And of course, this sort of landscape is exactly the kind of godforsaken place you inhabit in your mind as a teenager, for year after year after yet-another-wretched year. My favourite song was always Marionette, which tells of a land in which a marionette pulls the strings, rather than it being the other way around.
Marionettes are creepy enough, frankly.
See what I mean? And this particular marionette delights in the misery of her war-torn subjects. The lyrics couple images of subjection and pain with…well, images of coupling. The marionette is a queen bee, serviced by her knaves and pawns so she can bring forth hordes of offspring who sing in the cathedral beneath a swinging pendulum – most likely incense, but in context, I can’t help but think of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and The Pendulum. Of course, it’s probably all metaphorical anyway, but as a teenager, you’re far more likely to take everything literally and to imagine that the land really is ruled by a power-crazed, sex-obsessed puppet, bent on destroying your will and taking control of your life. Power and control are major themes in many of Toyah’s songs, and I enacted my own personal feeble rebellion at the injunction to be home in time for dinner by sitting in graveyards, writing rubbish poetry and listening to Marionette – the one who was once controlled is now the controller. Well, far better I suppose, to be the marionette than the reaper, who laughs before choking and crying.
The Anthem album cover (below) depicts the teenage-psyche-nightmare-place with the central figure, Toyah herself, striding fearlessly across this inhospitable wasteland. She is distant, powerful, beautiful, and it looks as if she’s holding the head of someone who got on her nerves once too often:
And of course, this is the figure you want to be. Toyah was wildly creative. She had massive hair. She used naughty words: ‘whore’ crops up quite a lot, and I can remember the thrill of hearing Toyah shout ‘Silence little bitch!’ in Elocution Lesson (you have to bear in mind that this was in the days when every other word in The Guardian wasn’t ‘fuck’ or ‘onanism’). And she’s only 11 years younger than my parents! – but I would never have believed that when I was 16. Toyah was everything I wanted to be and wasn’t. She’s even got wings in this picture here. But according to the extensive Wikipedia entry, Toyah was born something of a monster herself, ‘with a twisted spine, clawed feet, a clubbed right foot, one leg two inches shorter than the other and no hip sockets’, and of course, that lisp as well. Toyah went through a great deal of real physical suffering to become the astonishingly attractive person that she still is. She has never been particularly interested in either men or women as sexual partners, but she is married to a man whom she describes as her soulmate. She has been sterilised – pregnancy and childbirth would have been dangerous for her, given her past medical history. So Toyah has always been ‘outside’, in a sense, alien to everything, accountable to nothing, including her own biology. She really did cut all those strings.
Toyah Willcox’s official website can be found here.