Seamus Perry

Seamus Perry is a professor of English at Oxford. He is currently writing a Life of Auden.

With a Da bin ich! Properly Lawrentian

Seamus Perry, 9 September 2021

D.H. Lawrence is a ‘teller’ in the sense of telling you what to do – and, more particularly, what not to do: as Aldous Huxley observed, he could be ‘bloodthirstily censorious’. Lawrence had a philosophy, or as he self-deprecatingly put it, a ‘pseudo-philosophy’, coupled with a strong urge to dish out spiritual advice. ‘I want folk – English folk – to alter, and have more sense,’ as he said in a letter

When​ the posthumous Collected Poems of W.H. Auden appeared in 1976, Seamus Heaney wrote an appreciative review for the magazine Hibernia in which he told

a story about a Ballymena listener calling the BBC one morning in 1969, after the Northern Ireland news had given a lot of coverage to speeches by civil rights leaders the previous evening. ‘Tell us this,’ he said, ‘are...

Wire him up to a toaster: Ordinary Carey

Seamus Perry, 7 January 2021

Thisbook is a departure from John Carey’s normal mode, much more intently introductory than anything else he has written in a long and distinguished career. A Little History of Poetry canters from Gilgamesh and Homer to Mary Oliver and Les Murray in three hundred pages with a breezy sense of mission, assuming in the reader no previous acquaintance with the subject...

StephenSpender had spent two terms as an undistinguished student at University College, Oxford, before he finally met W.H. Auden. It was not for want of trying. Michael, Spender’s elder brother, an insufferable turbo-brain at Balliol, had known Auden at school and kept in touch, but refused to arrange an introduction for Stephen, fearing, as Spender later put it, that ‘in...

Cute, My Arse: Geoffrey Hill

Seamus Perry, 12 September 2019

You​ would be hard pressed to describe Geoffrey Hill’s final work. To say it is a sort of notebook cast as a prose poem in 271 sections of greatly varying length doesn’t get you very far. In one way it is squarely in the tradition of Pope’s Dunciad (which it mentions): it is a poem about the betrayal of England, a yowl of anger and outrage at the prevailing imbecility Hill...

What a carry-on: W.S. Graham

Seamus Perry, 18 July 2019

He began to try, in the poems he wrote in the 1940s, to make the difficulty of communication the whole point, transmuting his defensive belligerence into an extraordinary private language – the elements of which appear the same as those of the language we all use, so that it has a tantalising sense of something familiar but on investigation is completely elusive. They are the sort of poems you call hard. I don’t really know what to do with them, so I start playing games, like ‘spot the verb’.

‘There was not much comedy in Shelley’s life,’ Thomas Peacock remarked in his memoir, a sad thing to say; but the striking contrast between The Triumph of Life and most of Shelley’s work makes you realise that buoyant spirits are not far off in much of it. People were always struck by how young he seemed, and when critics like Eliot or Leavis ticked him off for adolescence or immaturity, it was a backhanded way of responding to the idea of youthfulness that they detected stirring in the poems. His opposition to tyranny was principled, but it was also the reaction of a child whom the grown-ups are always getting at: he really needed tyrants in his life, as Peacock perceptively observed. His dismal father, Sir Timothy, was the archetype, succeeded by schoolmasters, Eldon the Lord Chancellor, Wordsworth, Jupiter, God.

That’s what Wystan says

Seamus Perry, 10 May 2018

What​ became of his face? In his memorial address Stephen Spender, who had known Auden since they were undergraduates, contrasted the young man, Nordic and brilliant, with a ‘second image of Wystan … of course one with which you are all familiar: the famous poet with the face like a map of physical geography, criss-crossed and river-run and creased with lines’. By the...

Romanticism​ bequeathed a good many things to the beleaguered modern imagination, one of the most provoking of which was the thought that it should get out more. That bit of advice proved all the more challenging because it contradicted the other basic idea which the Romantics left behind – namely, that what mattered was staying inside, wrapped in the private world of subjectivity and...

Drugs, anyone? George Meredith

Seamus Perry, 18 June 2015

German​ scholars used to worry about something they called ‘Das Adam Smith Problem’. There seemed to be two of him: one was the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, awash with warm-hearted fellow feeling; the other, the hard-nosed realist of The Wealth of Nations, a work which seemed to describe a world governed by a heedless disregard for anyone other than oneself. These...

Dylan Thomas’s foredoomed premature death feels intrinsic to his late romanticism, part of what made him the ‘Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, as he labelled himself. But he could have escaped the legend to which he had devoted such energies. As Paul Ferris’s excellent biography established some time back, while Thomas was certainly in a bad way, his death was down to a medical blunder. He wasn’t martyred by the barbarians of the Inland Revenue: by the time he died Thomas was on the verge of being what he had never been before – a success.

Half-Fox: Ted Hughes

Seamus Perry, 29 August 2013

Among the many delights to be found in Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse is a squib by Thomas Holcroft, provoked by some disparaging remarks Voltaire made about Shakespeare. In fact, Voltaire was perfectly ready to concede that Shakespeare was possessed of real genius, though of a rough and ready kind, but in denying that he had ‘so much as a Spark of good...

The Shoreham Gang: Samuel Palmer

Seamus Perry, 5 April 2012

A bearded patriarch, possibly in Elizabethan dress, rests on his elbow, stretched out on a snug little hillock in the middle of a wedge-shaped field of corn. He is leaning against some sort of natural cushion, and it’s possible he is asleep, though he has a large book open in front of him so perhaps it’s just that his eyes are cast down to scrutinise its pages. But that would be...

Are we there yet? Tennyson

Seamus Perry, 20 January 2011

When Auden announced in his preface to a new selection that Tennyson was ‘undoubtedly the stupidest’ of all the English poets he must have known that he was asking for trouble. Trouble duly came in the shape of Sir Desmond MacCarthy, who doggedly stood up in the Sunday Times for the quality of Tennyson’s mind, deplored Auden’s account of the great man as ‘very...

Until 15 or 20 years ago most students of English literature would have known one thing about Anna Letitia Barbauld, which was her appearance in a droll anecdote told by Samuel Taylor Coleridge towards the end of his life and recorded in the posthumous volume of his Table Talk. ‘Mrs Barbauld told me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were – that it was...

The greatest long poem in modern English letters began its life, unexpectedly, in the winter of 1798, in an uncomfortable lodging in Goslar, Lower Saxony, where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy found themselves marooned for four miserable months. The weather was terrible – it was reputedly the coldest winter of the century – and leaving town was practically impossible:...

On 15 June 1794, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, prodigious, garrulous and chubby, his brilliant undergraduate career in tatters, set out from Cambridge in the company of a steady companion called Hucks, picturesquely intent on a walking tour of North Wales. Their route took them through Oxford, where they looked up one of Coleridge’s old schoolmates, who took the visitors to see a notorious...

In Flesh-Coloured Silk: Romanticism

Seamus Perry, 4 December 2003

There is a beguiling poem by Raymond Carver which, like many modern poems, though more cheerfully than some, spends most of its short life mulling over the conditions of its own possibility. ‘A crow flew into the tree outside my window’: the ingenuous opening line at once establishes Carver in a realm of the purest contingency, where things just happen to happen. The rest of the...

Hail, Muse! Byron v. Shelley

Seamus Perry, 6 February 2003

Ian Gilmour’s deft and learned book is concerned with the lives of Byron and Shelley up to the morning on which Byron woke up and found himself famous. The poets weren’t to meet for another four years, so Gilmour isn’t telling the history of their acquaintance but its prehistory; and not the least of his book’s many virtues is the way it makes you realise what an odd...



18 March 1999

In Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On there is a much wittier twist on Goering and his Browning than Malcolm Muggeridge’s reaching for his culture when he heard the word ‘gun’ (Letters, 29 April). It comes in the spoof memoir of Virginia Woolf’s literary soirées: ‘She was talking of her contemporaries, how she had spoken last week with Hemingway and how Ernest...

The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the...

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Alphabeted: Coleridge the Modernist

Barbara Everett, 7 August 2003

An informal Times feature on literary classics, published recently, included a list drawn up by a director of Penguin Classics: ‘The 50 Greatest Classics (pre-1900).’ Such lists can...

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