Colin Burrow

Colin Burrow is a fellow of All Souls. His books include Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity.

Song of Snogs: Catullus Bound

Colin Burrow, 2 December 2021

Catullus was a master of many kinds of oral delight. The real challenge in translating him is to capture the pleasure and the delicacy that exists alongside the frank and direct filth.

Ti tum ti tum ti tum: Chic Sport Shirker

Colin Burrow, 7 October 2021

The fact that the letters of the word ‘critic’ are all present and in the correct order within ‘Christopher Ricks’ is a wonderful coincidence that might make you think that he was born, or at least baptised, to do what he does so well. However it is an arbitrary and probably uninteresting coincidence that a full anagram of ‘Christopher Ricks’ is ‘chic sport shirker’, since Ricks isn’t so far as I know famous for skiving games while sporting a Versace tracksuit.

The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

In​ Jill Paton Walsh’s novel Goldengrove (1972), set shortly after the Second World War, the adolescent heroine, Madge, goes on holiday to Cornwall. She falls a little in love with a professor of English literature who has been blinded in action, and reads aloud to him. One of the passages he has her recite is an analysis of Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Of Weeping’:

Weep me...

On Fiona Benson

Colin Burrow, 17 June 2021

Atypical poem​ in Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright Travellers (2014), begins with a description of a hare:

              There’s a leveret in the field.I know it by its mother’s haunt at dusk,can sense the cupped space of its watch              over near the gorse.

The young hare is just a space...

‘What if?’ is the question all fiction asks. Oedipus Rex: ‘What if someone unknowingly killed his father and married his mother?’ Emma: ‘What if someone accidentally encouraged her friend to fall in love with the man she didn’t know she loved herself?’ Science fiction generally deals in larger ‘what ifs?’ about the underlying rules that...

I Am Brian Moore

Colin Burrow, 24 September 2020

In a review​ of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems, the novelist Brian Moore remarked: ‘For the great majority of writers born and brought up within its shores, Ireland is a harsh literary jailer. It is a terrain whose power to capture and dominate the imagination makes them its prisoner, forcing them, no matter how far away they wander, to return again and again in their writing to...

The Last Whale

Colin Burrow, 4 June 2020

Are you​ a Moby-Dickhead? If so, are you enough of a Moby-Dickhead to have visited the Phallological Museum in Iceland to inspect a sperm whale’s penis? This is one of the many intrepid expeditions undertaken by Richard King in the course of researching Ahab’s Rolling Sea. His book, like Moby-Dick itself, tells you everything you ever wanted to know about whales but were too...

Although this final volume may overwhelm with its bulk, it will not disappoint. But there are two questions that might now be asked of the completed trilogy. How has such a hugely intelligent historical fiction managed to be such a popular success? And will it last? These two questions are interconnected, because the Cromwell novels may finally seem just a little too keen on talking to their age to become permanent classics. The Mirror and the Light sometimes contains asides that read like closed captions or spoken footnotes, with one character explaining to the reader something every Tudor person would already know: ‘Archbishop Cranmer is sending me a new translation of the scriptures’. At these moments Mantel might have heeded the words addressed by her Wyatt to Cromwell: ‘Be careful . . . You are on the brink of explaining yourself.’

Fiction and the Age of Lies

Colin Burrow, 20 February 2020

The age of lies​ is probably as old as time. When I was young there was a comedian who did a Bristolian version of the Fall of Man. In the Garden of Eden, God says to Adam: ‘Adam, you bin eating them apples?’ ‘I neverrr,’ Adam replies. God says: ‘What are all them bloody apple cores doing on the ground then?’

‘I neverrr’ is the original lie,...

The Magic Bloomschtick: Harold Bloom

Colin Burrow, 21 November 2019

The idea of the ego as a potential god within that seeks to encompass and swallow up all around it is the deep, hidden nasty within American culture which makes it at once so powerful and so attractively repellent. In The American Canon this world in which ‘all secretly believe themselves to be no part of the creation and all feel free only when they are quite alone’ is presented as the defining quality of the American mind and the American sublime. Bloom acknowledges that its energies are deeply equivocal: ‘Place everything upon the nakedness of the American self, and you open every imaginative possibility from self-deification to absolute nihilism.’ The self-deification becomes, Bloom argues, outright auto-eroticism in Whitman, and in Trumpland ‘Self-Reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness.’ But this focus on the two extremes of the American self – self-deification and absolute nihilism – indicates where Bloom believed the real literary action is at.

On Ilya Kaminsky: Ilya Kaminsky

Colin Burrow, 24 October 2019

Ilya Kaminsky​ was born in 1977 in Odessa, the Ukrainian city named after Odysseus. In his first full-length collection of verse, Dancing in Odessa (2004), he let his readers in on a ‘secret’: ‘At the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices.’ When he was 16 his parents were granted asylum in the US and left ‘Odessa in such a...

Wordsworth​ was the first poet I fell in love with as a teenager. My English teacher (who preferred Pope and Henry James) mocked me for my taste, reminding me of Shelley’s description of Wordsworth in ‘Peter Bell the Third’ as ‘a solemn and unsexual man’. Never afraid of being thought either solemn or unsexual I persevered, and even persuaded my history teacher...

Asterisks and Obelisks

Colin Burrow, 7 March 2019

Not much​ is known about Propertius beyond what he says or implies about himself in the four books of elegies he wrote between roughly 30 BC (when he was probably in his mid to late twenties) and about 16 BC. He was born in Assisi and came from a wealthy Umbrian family which seems to have resisted Octavian – the future Emperor Augustus – in the battle of Perugia of 41 BC....

Adjusting the Mechanism: Robert Graves

Colin Burrow, 11 October 2018

Virginia Woolf​ could be cruelly accurate in her assessments of people. On 24 April 1925 Robert Graves visited her unexpectedly and stayed too long. She described him as ‘a nice ingenuous rattle headed young man’, and declared ‘the poor boy is all emphasis protestation and pose.’ By 1925 Graves had good reason to be ‘rattle headed’. He had survived...

Slice of Life: Robin Robertson

Colin Burrow, 30 August 2018

Robin Robertson​ is something of a specialist in pain. He usually describes what painful events look like from the outside rather than how they feel from within. It’s often as though sufferers are so entranced by the appearance of what’s happening to them that they can’t actually see how bad it is. There is a fine slight poem from Slow Air (2002) called ‘Break’...

The Odyssey is much harder to translate than The Iliad. One person’s interpolation or historical curiosity will be another person’s moment of deep psychological insight. That problem is compounded by the subject matter and social world of the poem. It is full of travellers and strangers who might be gods, or con men, or, like much enduring godly Odysseus of the many wiles himself, a little bit of both. So no one ever quite knows what’s going on. A swineherd might turn out to be an abducted prince. A Cyclops might greet a stranger who addresses it politely by bashing the brains out of one of his companions as if he were a puppy. A good king might politely offer a wary welcome and food, listen to a stranger’s story, and then after a tactful delay ask who he is and where he is from. And then the guest might lie.

His Dark Example: ‘The Book of Dust’

Colin Burrow, 4 January 2018

My children​ are now 21 and beyond the age of being reasoned with or read to. This has its advantages: reasoning has never come naturally to me. But I profoundly miss reading to them as they slumped against me in symmetrical warmth (they are non-identical twins). There were some books, it’s true, over which I fell asleep. Reading The Hobbit aloud enabled me to acquire the skill of...

On Michael Longley: Michael Longley

Colin Burrow, 19 October 2017

There are​ few contemporary poets as likeable as Michael Longley. That’s not because his poems are simply amiable, but because he looks at things hard and clearly and invites his readers to share his acts of seeing. In his new book, Angel Hill (Cape, £10), even a cataract operation is an opportunity to celebrate sharpness of vision: ‘My eyeball’s frozen. I lie/At the...

Ohs and Ahs, Zeros and Ones: Lyric Poems

Colin Burrow, 7 September 2017

Chopping up literary activity into manageable portions of relatively similar material is, like butchery, a job that requires both skill and a measure of brutality. Of all the limbs into which literature has been subdivided by its anatomists, ‘lyric’ is perhaps the most like Grendel’s arm after Beowulf tears it off and hangs it up in Hrothgar’s hall: huge, a bit of a...

On Les Murray: Les Murray

Colin Burrow, 27 July 2017

Bunyah is​ a valley about 300 km north of Sydney in which the Australian poet Les Murray grew up, and to which he returned in 1985 as ‘my refuge and my homeplace’. Over-educated readers might imagine from its title that On Bunyah (Carcanet, £14.99) is a set of philosophical meditations which belongs on the shelves next to, say, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. But...

On Philip Terry

Colin Burrow, 13 July 2017

If the world​ of experimental poetry makes you think of pseudy dudes in black 501s and Doc Martens, then I would prescribe a small daily dose of Philip Terry, for whom being experimental chiefly means being thoughtfully rebellious and funny. In his translation of Dante’s Inferno (2014), Terry is guided through the hell that is the University of Essex (where he is professor of creative...

At the start​ of Aeschylus’ Oresteia a watchman sees a flaming beacon. This is supposed to be the sign that Troy has fallen and that Agamemnon is coming home from the Trojan war. The watchman briefly rejoices. Then he says (in Richmond Lattimore’s translation): ‘The rest/I leave to silence; for an ox stands huge upon/my tongue. The house itself, could it take voice, might...

Big Rip-Off: Riffing Off Shakespeare

Colin Burrow, 3 November 2016

Ripping off​ and riffing off are related but distinct activities. A jazz player takes a standard and turns it inside out and back to front and then, to a cheer, makes it reassemble out of the apparent dissonances. Oh. It is ‘Summertime’. The enabling conditions of a successful riff-off are virtuosity in the performer and deep familiarity with the standard among the audience....

On Alice Oswald

Colin Burrow, 22 September 2016

It would be​ very easy for Alice Oswald to get stuck. She had great and deserved success with Dart (2002), a poem that sought to be a river. It wandered from source to sea, taking in voices of Devon and its history as it went, and deepening and widening as it reached the estuary. When she revisited the notion of a poem as riverrun in A Sleepwalk on the Severn (2009), which replayed five...

Sometimes her novels read as though a French farce were being redescribed by Sartre. Sometimes Hugo (as it were) pitches up for no apparent reason other than to tell the protagonist he needs to sort out his karma, and everyone suddenly falls in love. At these moments it’s hard to tell if Murdoch’s fictional tongue is in her cheek, or if it’s just poor engineering in the plot, or some deeper failure to recognise that people usually do things for some kind of reason.

Heaney was not in any simple sense a ‘Virgilian’ poet, or at least he was not the kind of poet who would make such a grand claim for himself. But the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid in particular – in which Aeneas culls the golden bough, descends to the underworld, meets fallen comrades, and then receives from his father a vision of souls recycled by imbibing the waters of Lethe and a roll-call of future Roman heroes – mattered more to his later writing than any other single text.

The Empty Bath: ‘The Iliad’

Colin Burrow, 18 June 2015

At sandy Pylos (as Homer calls it) on the western coast of Greece it’s still possible to see the bathtub of Nestor, who figures in the Iliad as an ancient, well-meaning but rather long-winded hero. Nestor’s bath is a substantial piece of decorated terracotta fixed into a weighty base. It has sat in its present position since the late Mycenaean period (1300-1200 BC), which is roughly when the historical figures behind Homer’s epics are thought to have strode the earth.

What is a pikestaff? Metaphor

Colin Burrow, 23 April 2015

Metaphors.​ The little devils just wriggle in everywhere. ‘Put a lid on it,’ ‘get stuck in,’ ‘shut your trap’: they’re a routine feature of vernacular usage, even when the metaphors are (as we metaphorically say) ‘dead’ or ‘buried’. It’s the only figure of speech which not only everyone uses but which more or less...

Are you a Spenserian? Philology

Colin Burrow, 6 November 2014

All​ logophiles have their weaknesses. Mine is technical vocabulary drawn from handcrafts, especially if those words have an obscure or Germanic origin. Who could resist noggin – an abbreviation of nogging board, which carpenters now use to refer to a transverse piece of timber hidden behind a wall surface into which you can affix screws to support shelves? Where two planes of a board...

Roughly​ thirty miles southwest of Exeter the A38 rips along the edge of the churchyard of Dean Prior, where Robert Herrick, with one period of interruption, was rector between 1630 and his death in 1674. The interruption began in or around January 1646, when the New Model Army marched along the predecessor of the A38 to relieve Plymouth. On their way they seem to have ejected Herrick from...

Rancorous Old Sod: Homage to Geoffrey Hill

Colin Burrow, 20 February 2014

Not everyone​ likes Geoffrey Hill. There have been tedious arguments about his ‘difficulty’, about whether that difficulty has become hermetic obscurity in his later work, about his politics, and about whether the large quantity of verse he’s written in his sixties, seventies and eighties is as good as the relatively small number of poems he wrote in the 1960s, 1970s and...

Semi-colons are for the weak: Bond Redux

Colin Burrow, 19 December 2013

‘Morning dearie’. Bond heaved himself awake. A set of teeth was grinning at him from the glass next to his bed. He was in an Innov8 2000 Profiling Hospital Bed with full electronic tilt control. Two tubes ran out of his side to drain the cavity where his right lung used to be.

The nurse was trying to put her arm around him to help him sit up.

‘Now Jimmy … ’


Burning Love: Clive James’s Dante

Colin Burrow, 24 October 2013

Everyone agrees that The Divine Comedy is wonderful. Just a shaft of song from the spirits in paradise, a phrase or two of Marco of Lombardy in purgatory explaining the birth of the soul, or even one of the squirts of desperate rage from one of the souls in hell, makes everything else seem small and distant. It’s extremely hard, though, to describe the exact mixture of qualities that...

Frog’s Knickers: How to Swear

Colin Burrow, 26 September 2013

Roll up, roll up all you ‘mangie rascals, shiteabed scoundrels, drunken roysters, slie knaves, drowsie loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubbardly lowts, fondling fops, base lowns, saucie coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing Braggards, noddie meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddi-poljolt-heads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, slutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninnie-hammer flycatchers, noddiepeak simpletons, turdie gut, shitten shepherds.’

Fetch the Scissors: B.S. Johnson

Colin Burrow, 11 April 2013

Until very recently I had never read any B.S. Johnson. I had a staticky reminiscence of what he might have been, which could be represented, using his own idiosyncratic conventions for marking the lapses that run through our consciousness of the world, as ‘experimental … . suicide … . wrists was it?’

To clear the static first: these reprints are to celebrate what would...

Shall I go on? Loving Milton

Colin Burrow, 7 March 2013

The quatercentenary of Milton’s birth was in 2008. The celebratory shenanigans – the conferences, public lectures, biographies and privy pieces of self-promotion that in our wicked age accompany all major anniversaries – are over. But one key question remains unanswered. How is it possible to like Milton? There is certainly a great deal to dislike. Most people would think of him as an overlearned poet who combines labyrinthine syntax with a wide range of moral and intellectual vices. His views on sex and women, for example, were mostly gruesome.

I, Lowborn Cur: Literary Names

Colin Burrow, 22 November 2012

James Bond was a well-known ornithologist. His Birds of the West Indies is an unusually rich source of names. According to Bond, the Sooty Tern is also known as the Egg Bird; Booby; Bubí; Hurricane Bird; Gaviota Oscura; Gaviota Monja; Oiseau Fou; Touaou. But when the keen birdwatcher Ian Fleming needed a name that sounded as ordinary as possible, he had to look no further than the title page of Bond’s great work. Why does the name of an actual ornithologist sound so right as the name of a fictional spy? Why couldn’t Fleming have used another pair of common monosyllables – John Clark, say?

Bring Up the Bodies is not just a historical novel. It’s a novel with a vision of history that magically suits the period it describes. Its predecessor, Wolf Hall, the first part of what will be a trilogy of novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell, carried the burden of beginning and perhaps also of containing too much history.* In it Thomas Cromwell frees Henry VIII from his marriage...

Gold-Digger: Walter Ralegh

Colin Burrow, 8 March 2012

The OED suggests that the word ‘star’ was not used of ‘a person of brilliant reputation or talents’ until the 19th century. Nonetheless Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) struck his contemporaries as pretty much a ‘star’ in this sense. The attorney general said during his final trial: ‘He hath been as a star at which the world hath gazed; but stars may fall,...

It’s easy to think of literary forgers simply as greedy people who are good at making bits of paper look old. But there is nothing simple about the history of Shakespearean forgery. It began more or less at the height of the late 18th-century mania for everything Shakespearean – life, works, documents, laundry lists, anything. Some of it was driven by a desire to make a quick buck...

Pissing on Idiots: Extreme Editing

Colin Burrow, 6 October 2011

Many years ago, when there were still second-hand bookshops in which to skulk, I found a leather-bound volume with ‘BENTLEY’S HORACE’ on its spine. It was only twenty quid, so I dropped into the standard routine for bagging a bargain. You’d toy with a few other things, then take the one you really wanted to the desk with some gesture that said, ‘Oh well, I might as well pick up this old thing too.’ I hoped the volume was going to be Richard Bentley’s 1711 edition of Horace, which is full of his sometimes inspired and sometimes not so inspired conjectural emendations. When I got it home I found it was an English translation of Bentley’s notes on Horace’s Odes, along with ‘Notes upon Notes Done in the Bentleian Stile and Manner’, which the hack publisher Bernard Lintott produced in 1712 to cash in on the fame of Bentley’s Horace.

Big Head, Many Brains: H.G. Wells

Colin Burrow, 16 June 2011

In 1892, while H.G. Wells was transforming himself from a draper’s assistant to a student of science, he married his cousin Isabel. He ungallantly described her in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934) as being at the time of their marriage ‘the one human being who was conceivable as an actual lover’. She did not much like having sex with him, however, and when he started...

Sudden Elevations of Mind: Dr Johnson

Colin Burrow, 17 February 2011

Most literary criticism is ephemeral, too good for wrapping up chips but not worth binding, keeping, annotating or editing. Very little English literary criticism has lasted as long or worn as well as Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. It shaped the canon of English poetry and set the terms for critical discussion of Donne, Milton, Dryden, Swift and Pope over at least two centuries....

Toolkit for Tinkerers: The Sonnet

Colin Burrow, 24 June 2010

Sonnets have no rival. They’ve been written about kingfishers, love, squirrels, the moon (too often), God, despair, more love, grief, exultation, time, decay, church bells beyond the stars heard, war, statues, castles, rivers, revolutionaries, architecture, madness, seascapes, letters, kisses, and more or less everything else from apocalypse to zoos. Since its invention in 13th-century...

Adam to Zeus: John Banville

Colin Burrow, 11 March 2010

There’s a revealing slip near the start of John Banville’s new novel. Ursula Godley, whose husband lies dying upstairs, reflects on her son and daughter: ‘These are the creatures she carried inside her and gave birth to and fed from her own breast, phoenix-like.’ A phoenix can never feed its young because there is only ever one of it at a time. It immolates itself in...

Be Nice to Mice: Henryson

Colin Burrow, 8 October 2009

Robert Henryson is the most likeable late medieval author after Chaucer. He wrote with a directness, a lightly carried learning and a lack of sentimentality hard to match anywhere in the British Isles at any date. A late and sadly unreliable anecdote conveys something of his style. Francis Kynaston reported in the early 17th century that when Henryson was dying of diarrhoea (probably around...

How to Twist a Knife: Wolf Hall

Colin Burrow, 30 April 2009

There was no shortage of bastards in the early 16th century, but Thomas Cromwell stands out as one of the biggest bastards of them all. His surviving correspondence shows the energy, efficiency and brutality of someone born to get things done. Whenever he says, ‘I remain still your perfect and sincere friend,’ you can be fairly sure he is about to terminate the addressee’s...

In Florence in 1348, shortly after two of its biggest banks collapsed because the English king had defaulted on a loan, roughly two-thirds of the population died of the Black Death. Egg-shaped buboes swelled up in the victims’ armpits or groins, and then black bruising spread across their bodies. According to Giovanni Boccaccio, whose father and stepmother died during the outbreak, the...

Are there too many novels about missing Old Masters? Anyone who reads Jason Goodwin’s The Bellini Card might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s about a search for a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror which was supposedly painted by Gentile Bellini during his visit to Istanbul in 1479. It relentlessly assembles all the standard fixtures and fittings of the sub-genre: exploitative...

‘Politics’ is a strange word, and the particular nature of its strangeness may explain why so many people feel confused by or alienated from political processes. It can refer high-mindedly to ‘the political ideas, beliefs or commitments of a particular individual’. But it can also be more or less value-neutral – or indeed suggest a complete lack of principle...

Even serious and persistent readers often say they can’t finish Salman Rushdie’s novels. His unfinishability has some obvious causes. Wearyingly encrusted description is the natural mode of the earlier fiction. In Midnight’s Children the central character’s dog dies, but dogs can’t just die in Rushdie: they have to be abandoned on the other side of town, they...

John Crowley’s novels are hard to describe. His best one, Little, Big (1981), is probably something you might call ‘fantasy’. It contains talking trout, and little people, and witches in New York, and an attempt by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to rule the world again, which is thwarted by a family who possess a magic deck of cards. What makes it not quite fantasy, or...

How many Hamlets would you like? A play of that name was performed in the late 1580s. It was probably bloody and Senecan, and probably written by Thomas Kyd. Another one (probably Shakespeare’s) was performed on board a ship anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607 at the request of the captain, William Keeling: ‘I invited Captain Hawkins to a ffishe dinner, and had Hamlet...

Both of M.J. Hyland’s novels – only two so far – are written from the perspective of weird adolescents. Both books are strong, awkward and unobvious in ways that get under your skin. How the Light Gets In (2004) presents the world in the first-person present tense of Lou Connor, an Australian teenager who escapes from her family, which is impoverished in every way, by...

Recribrations: John Donne in Performance

Colin Burrow, 5 October 2006

Literary biography is one of the background noises of our age. It’s a decent, friendly sort of hum, like the Sunday papers or chatter on a train. It gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism. But there are two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done. The first is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving or a search for a key to a life. Wordsworth? Well, that stuff about Lucy is really all about his affair with Annette Vallon. Byron? Just remember he loved his sister.

Not Quite Nasty: Anthony Burgess

Colin Burrow, 9 February 2006

Anthony Burgess is a 1960s sideboard of a writer. His range was improbable. He published 32 novels, composed symphonies, wrote two books on Joyce, a biography of Shakespeare and a study of the English language, as well as a large number of film scripts, most of which never entered production. He died in 1993, and is at the moment passing through the droop in reputation which most dead writers endure before they can become history. Four years ago he was the victim of what was generally regarded as a loathsome biography by Roger Lewis, who presented him as a pompous, psychologically damaged second-rater. Lewis’s biography was no fun to read, but it was interesting for what it revealed about responses to the unfashionable. It was written by a lapsed admirer, and showed exactly what happens when a reader realises that he no longer likes what he thought he liked, but hasn’t yet worked out how to detach himself from his former feeling. The result is rage and loathing, which is chiefly a warped form of embarrassment about one’s former admiration.

No Way Out: John McGahern

Colin Burrow, 20 October 2005

John McGahern is an extraordinary writer of charm and violence. His most recent novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), has a looseness and a gaiety which it took him nearly seventy years to allow himself. His earlier work marked him as one of the great writers of claustrophobia. His novels tend to evoke small places – single houses or tiny communities – and to crush into...

Why do we want to read about murder? Most of us do not want to kill people, and most of us would feel a little squeamish if we discovered that one of our friends had done somebody in. Part of the reason must be simple ghoulishness, if it can ever be entirely simple to take pleasure in imagining how people kill each other. In most murder fictions these dark pleasures are overlaid by other,...

“Literary biography is often written for people who don’t much fancy reading plays and who want to be reassured that some of the superstitions they have about the relationship between human activities and social causality have some descriptive force. The explanations of literary activity which are required by the market for literary biography tend to be made up from a dash of Freud, a handful of social aspiration, a scratching from Foucault’s armpit, and a willingness to entertain simple one-to-one correspondences between fiction and life.”

‘I’m one of those writers who likes to stay with what he knows,’ James Gillespie, the persistently apolitical hero of Ronan Bennett’s third novel, The Catastrophist (1998), says. Gillespie, now a novelist, was once a historian. In his PhD he had argued that ‘the great political and religious upheavals of the 16th century owed little to ideological or doctrinal...

Never trust a man called Smith. Or rather, don’t trust him if he has a fake beard and is travelling with another man called Smith who also has a fake beard. This is one of the profound moral lessons which emerge from one of the most extraordinary incidents in 17th-century English history.

On 17 February 1623, the future Charles I and the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, set off...

Gardening today labours to be classless. TV programmes and books try to persuade us that we, whoever we are, can make over scrubby lawns, erect decking, build pergolas, plumb in water features, and construct a little Blenheim in a rectangle of twenty by thirty feet. Everyone knows this notion of classlessness is false, since nothing stimulates petty snobberies more immediately than a garden....

In November 1619 René Descartes retired into a ‘stove’ in order to reflect on the foundations of our knowledge of ourselves and the world. From his meditations he produced the bloodless certainty of the cogito: ‘I think therefore I am.’ The rest is intellectual history.

In 1571 Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library...

Tuesday Girl: Seraphick Love

Colin Burrow, 6 March 2003

“’Friendship’ between the sexes in this period had so many different and potentially conflicting aspects that no one who participated in such a relationship might know exactly what they were doing or quite what they finally meant, or how their friend might read their behaviour. It was the perfect social game for a society which was preparing itself to enjoy some of the pleasures afforded by the novel.”

Grit in the Oyster-Shell: Pepys

Colin Burrow, 14 November 2002

Samuel Pepys was the son of a London tailor and a president of the Royal Society. He was a philanderer who could feed a wench lobster before having his way with her under a chair in a tavern (twice, on a good day), and a sage moralist who wrote solemnly to rebuke his chief patron, the Earl of Sandwich, for an extra-marital affair which threatened his career. He kept pictures of Oliver...

A Joke Too Far: My Favourite Elizabethan

Colin Burrow, 22 August 2002

Reader, where are you sitting? Perhaps sunk in a sunlounger by the pool, or perched on a joggling seat on the Tube. Should anyone be reading this on a hard, cold seat in the privy, then they ought to be profoundly grateful to Elizabeth I’s godson Sir John Harington, who in his extraordinary pamphlet The Metamorphosis of Ajax (or ‘A Jakes’ – get it?) invented the...

Chapmaniac: Chapman’s Homer

Colin Burrow, 27 June 2002

If Homer had walked the English soil in 1597 he would have felt that he had lived in vain. At that date no English poet had a substantial knowledge of either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Although the statutes of grammar schools made proud boasts that Greek was studied in the higher forms, it’s likely that by the end of the 16th century only a handful of schoolchildren could read more than...

Waves of Wo: George Gascoigne

Colin Burrow, 5 July 2001

There is a novel by John Masefield called ODTAA. Its title stands for ‘One Damn Thing After Another’. This would be a good title for a biography of George Gascoigne. Despite having a fine crop of literary firsts to his name (the first Italian-style comedy in English, one of the very first versions of a Greek tragedy in English, and one of the earliest systematic discussions of...

I Don’t Know Whats: Torquato Tasso

Colin Burrow, 22 February 2001

No one would score many points in a game of Humiliation if they confessed they had not read Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. As his translator John Hoole put it in 1763, ‘Of all Authors, so familiarly known by name to the generality of English readers as Tasso, perhaps there is none whose works have been so little read.’ Hoole did much to change that: his translation –...

The Oxford English Dictionary cites more than 33,000 passages from Shakespeare to illustrate the sense of English words. About 1900 of its main entries have first citations from Shakespeare. Although these figures are certain to over-estimate the impact of Shakespeare on the language there is no doubt that his vocabulary of about 29,000 words left English greater in all ways than it was before. This was largely a result of his extraordinary willingness to make nouns verbs and verbs nouns, to add prefixes and suffixes, and use words previously undocumented.

Imperiumsinefinism: Virgil

Colin Burrow, 2 March 2000

Virgil is the only Western writer to have been a set work for schoolchildren more or less continuously from the moment his verse appeared. No sooner were the Eclogues and Georgics published, in the mid-20s BC, than they were taught as canonical works; children in European schools have sweated over the grammar of the Aeneid ever since 19 BC. To add to the poet’s misfortune, his work has attracted more, and more various, commentary than any Western text apart from the Bible. This makes it difficult – perhaps uniquely difficult – to read. Critical opinion is deeply entrenched, and most of it sounds as though it were originally uttered by retired colonels. He is ‘the father of the West’ (Haeker); ‘the classic of all Europe’ (Eliot); and, worst of all, a panegyrist of empire: ‘the intention of Virgil was to imitate Homer and to praise Augustus through his ancestors’ (Servius).’‘

From The Blog
14 October 2016

Buckets of rain were falling over the MacTweedledeedum links. There was silence apart from the distant drilling in the wall of the clubhouse. Big Jim McTweedle was building another extension to the bar. Bob’s heart was in the highlands but his mind was on the next hole. It was the awkward 15th, where only a lot of backspin could keep you out of the bunker.

From The Blog
28 November 2012

Tragedy. Groan groan. It’s a bummer, isn’t it? It’s all just so... inevitable. You read, weeping, as Anna Karenina goes for the train, as Lear enters with Cordelia dead in his arms. No choice: just turn the pages, sit back and grieve. And it’s the same old story every time. The train is never late. Cordelia never pops up and says: ‘Hi dad, I could murder a pizza.’ It’s all so unmodern, so uncool, just so friggin’ Greek. We moderns have moved on. We’re all free agents. We make choices. Choices are what make us. So give me tragedy with choice and give it to me now. Instead of just blubbing and crying out ‘NOoooo’ while what you don’t want to happen happens, why not just turn to page 394 and get a new ending? Cool. Indeed, totally friggin’ awesome.

From The Blog
18 September 2012

The news that archaeologists had found, or thought they’d found, the body of Richard III under a council car park in Leicester ought to have been cause for celebration. He (or presumed he) is exactly where he ought to have been according to historical sources. He had an arrow in his back and his head had been bashed in. There could be no clearer physical proof of the complete ruthlessness of Henry Tudor. Apparently the body has curvature of the spine, so Thomas More and Shakespeare weren’t too far off when they called Richard crook-backed. History seemed to have been vindicated. But somehow I just didn’t feel good about it. Partly it was the solemn University of Leicester press conference, where men in suits tried to hold in sober academical check their triumph at a great historical find. They had discovered, after more than 500 years, a body that had been killed in a very nasty way, then dumped with the minimum of decorum required to avoid a public outcry. I wondered how archaeologists in the future might reveal that they had discovered the bones of bin Laden.

From The Blog
18 January 2012

It was all set to be grand night out. A special preview of Coriolanus at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, to be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director and star, Ralph Fiennes. But he failed to show up. Fortunately I had brought a bag of Revels with me. They kept me going for the first ten minutes, during which Coriolanus, set in modern war-torn somewhere, is unrelentingly khaki.

Brattishness: Henry Howard

Colin Burrow, 11 November 1999

Although Surrey’s surviving poems can be read in an afternoon, they represent a major achievement for someone whose life was cut short (literally: he was beheaded) at the age of 30. He invented blank verse, as well as the ‘Shakespearean’ form of the sonnet. His poems habitually dwell on isolation: they adopt the voices of Petrarchan lovers brooding on an inner hurt, prisoners lamenting past happiness, or psalmists threatening destruction to their enemies. The most powerful of them adopt the voices of women left by their lovers or husbands. ‘O happy dames’ is spoken by a woman who is watching the sea and waiting for her lover:‘

On 16 June 1783, Samuel Johnson was rendered speechless by a stroke. His first action was not to try croaking for a doctor, but to compose a prayer in Latin: ‘The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties.’ Johnson was relieved that he could still pray in Latin, but the greater part of his relief was that he was still enough of a critic to know that his verses were not much good.‘

The traditional view of mid-17th-century verse is that it consists of ‘mere anthology pieces’. As a statement of fact this has a ghost of truth to it, since much of the verse from this period originally circulated in miscellaneous collections – manuscript gatherings of verse, or volumes of elegies by various hands. As a statement of value, though, that ‘mere’ is profoundly wrong. Mid-17th-century verse rarely asks to be read as part of the oeuvre of a single author. Instead, it thrives on miscellaneity. This long and damnably difficult to live through period produced an extraordinary quantity of poems which deserve to be appreciated as ephemera. Poems to named individuals, poems on generically delicious mistresses, poems of venomously individual hatred, poems which are unattributable, poems which only made sense in 1643, poems which seem to drift out of the air onto the page: verse of this kind is happiest in a miscellany, which allows readers to reflect on where it came from, when it was written, to whom and why.’‘

From The Blog
23 April 2010

I’m a bit of a snob. I’ve never looked inside a volume of York Notes. Are they the ones that used to have those waspish yellow and black bands on the covers, that I used to sneer at when I was an Olympian teen, doing A-Levels like a real grown-up by reading the actual books? Or were those Mr Brodie’s rival notes? Never knew. Never knew who Brodie was either. Didn’t want to. Both series seem now to have had glossy makeovers so I will never know.

Probably I ought to find out what teenagers are told they should know about Othello and To Kill a Mockingbird and stuff, though somehow I feel that not reading York Notes is among the least bad of my bad habits of a lifetime. Curiously (I’m obviously behind the times) the bestselling York Notes Intermediate Volume is on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. An Amazon review of this no doubt admirable volume says: ‘i bought this book for myu english gcse course, it is very helpful and must have one if you want to do well in your exam.’ This isn’t signed ‘Molesworth’, but I suppose by now he has grandchildren who can txt like that while taking out the civilians in Call of Duty 6 with an uzi.

From The Blog
25 March 2010

Shakespeare in the news. It’s always stuff that isn’t Shakespeare or stuff that Shakespeare isn’t, isn’t it? Shakespeare not by Shakespeare. What a bore. Shakespeare a Catholic. What a bore. Poems that Shakespeare didn’t write. Stylometric fingerprinting suggests to boffin and Dan Brown readers that a scholarly conspiracy has occluded The Truth, which is to be found by the chosen ones who can decipher the acrostics scribbled in the gents in the Middle Temple crypt. What a bore.

From The Blog
24 December 2009

1. Concern has been expressed about the proposal to deploy research ‘impact’ as a criterion for allocating resources to UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) under the new Research Excellent Framework. A small group of disaffected scholars with limited understanding of knowledge-capital markets have claimed that ‘impact’ will be impossible to assess objectively and will disadvantage some disciplines and institutions. 2. We regard impact as a visionary concept, essential to fair and transparent funding-distribution within a modern HE environment, and would urge that it become the sole criterion for the Research Excellence Framework. 3. An interdisciplinary team here at the University of Southern Comforts has developed a modest proposal to develop an Impactometer™,

From The Blog
24 November 2009

Deep in our collective memories are those 1970s album covers, you know the ones: a dwarf in one corner, a strong man in eyeshadow in another, and somewhere in the middle of it all, but still in the shadows and probably in a leotard, is the artist formerly known as Bob, George, or whoever it was. Their spirit lives on in Bob Dylan’s Christmas video. Bob, well he’s always been a cussed so-and-so, and part of the game of being Bob is to do whatever your fans really don’t want, and then watch them twisting themselves around so that they can still love you in spite of it all.


Wet or Dry

13 August 2020

Anyone who joins Stefan Collini in grazing through back issues of the ‘dry as dust’ Review of English Studies (of which I am one of the editors) will enjoy the article by that latter-day ‘go-to man for readable, informed thoughtfulness on any literary subject’ Stefan Collini titled ‘“The Chatto List”: Publishing Literary Criticism in Mid-20th- Century Britain’...
Wordsworth’s ‘unlovely cell’ was of course at that notorious slum known as St John’s College, Cambridge, not, as I wrote, at the notorious slum next door known as Trinity College (LRB, 4 July). I apologise to both those august institutions. There are just too many slums in Cambridge.

He got it all from me!

11 October 2018

I am well aware of Mark Jacobs’s work on Laura Riding (Letters, 25 October). To make good my failure to acknowledge her genius, however, I’ll respond to him by quoting a characteristically lucid letter in which Riding accuses William Empson of plagiarising her: ‘What I have to say to you will in part follow in continuation. I thought I should get it all down today, but I can’t....

Who Indeed?

5 October 2006

Roger Jones asks: ‘Who on earth is Sylvie Krin?’ (Letters, 19 October). Her deathless romances about royal loves have ornamented Private Eye for many years: ‘Her mind raced back to those blissful, stolen moments that had spelled out their furtive romance, their marriage in all but name. The moment their eyes met at her wedding reception. The quick kiss in the men’s changing...
Colin Burrow writes: I’m not sure Emily Wilson has quite got me right. As a self-professed ‘Chapmaniac’ (LRB, 27 June 2002), I generally prefer translations of the Homeric poems that respond to their poetic spirit rather than to the letter. Chapman believed he was inspired by Homer, and produced a wonderful if wayward version of the poems. I’d also be one of the last people...

Don’t break that fiddle: Eclectic Imitators

Tobias Gregory, 19 November 2020

The boundary between the broader and narrower senses has never been firm, and the history of literary imitation has always been bound up with the histories of philosophy, rhetoric and education. Plato,...

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I must needs acknowledge, that the Greeke and Latine tongues, are great ornaments in a Gentleman, but they are purchased at over-high rate. Montaigne, Essays I grew up​ in postwar...

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Mr Who He? Shakespeare’s Poems

Stephen Orgel, 8 August 2002

In his own time, Shakespeare was much better known to the reading public as a poet than as a playwright. Venus and Adonis went through ten editions before his death in 1616, and another six...

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