Small children love poetry. Most adults, sadly, don’t. What happens in between? There seems to be a popular assumption that if you really like poetry (like me), you must be academic, a bit geeky, probably rather weird (like me). I don’t believe this; I think that too many people are put off poetry at school, perhaps by assumptions made by others around them that it’s ‘boring’; perhaps by exposure to a limited range of poems; perhaps by lacklustre teaching. But this is such a shame – I won’t go into why poetry is important, beautiful, necessary etc here (if you want more on this, read ‘How Poetry can Change Lives‘, which says it better than I can). When I’m teaching poetry to undergraduates, I often hear students say ‘I don’t understand it’. Often, it’s true, poetry doesn’t say things in the same straightforward way that prose does, but poetry is a lot more than just its projected ‘meaning’. I know this because my son, pre-verbal at less than a year old, loved me reading poetry to him; he heard a lot of Tennyson, Rossetti and Shakespeare (and anything else I had memorised) before he had any idea what words were, let alone how to interpret a poem. Of course he loved it – the rhythm, the sounds of the words in your mouth and in the air are hypnotic. How can you not be drawn in by Byron’s ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’? If you don’t believe me, read it aloud.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
What about Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’?
Poems are meant to be read aloud, and one of the pleasures of having a small child is the reading process. Of course, it’s good for them in an educational sense, and in a bonding way too, but it is also fun. Now my son is nearly 3, we have a lot of children’s poems, including the omnipresent Julia Donaldson (my particular favourite is The Highway Rat because of my affection for Alfred Noyes’ poem), but mostly, we have A A Milne’s poems of Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin. They entertain parents as well as children; they have little morals (some of them) and are absolute nonsense (others). But what they have in common is a gentle repetition, rhymes, a steady, often galloping rhythm, and images which appeal to children. Like all the best children’s (and adults?) literature, they suggest ways in which the world might be better (‘King John’s Christmas’ opens ‘King John was not a good man’, but concludes ‘And oh! Father Christmas, my blessings on you fall, For bringing him a big, red, india-rubber ball!’) ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor‘ reminds us that other people don’t always know best (and is, in its way, a very sad poem). ‘Sneezles‘ reminds us not to get too stressed about children’s colds, while ‘Teddy Bear‘ shows us that fat can be beautiful. All good messages. Be warned, though – these are earworms of the most pernicious variety, and you will find yourself reciting them long after the children are in bed.
‘In the Fashion’ is Edward’s current favourite: it’s about how a little boy gets a tail because his favourite animals have them; as a result, I have had to make him his own tail (see picture). Another favourite is the completely pointless ‘Busy’, which I rather like because it exactly sums up a child’s life. We often hear Edward muttering ‘Round about and round about and round about and round about’ when he’s meant to be going to sleep:
I think I am a muffin man. I haven’t got a bell.
I haven’t got the muffin things that muffin people sell.
Perhaps I am a postman. No I think I am a tram.
I’m feeling rather funny and I don’t know what I am–
And round about
And round about I go–
All around the table,
The table in the nursery–
And round about
And round about I go–
I think I am a traveller escaping from a bear;
I think I am an elephant
Behind another elephant
Behind another elephant who isn’t really there….
And round about
And round about and round about
And round about
And round about
Grace Nichols, a judge of the Foyle Young Poets Award, wrote to the Guardian recently asking ‘Parents, pick poetry’. She points out that children are likely to get into poetry through their parents, and says that ‘a poem read aloud can hold children enthralled, awakening in them a new love of language. Poetry never forgets its roots in song. Children love the sound of words; the surprise of images; of getting their tongues around the music of vowels and consonants.’ She’s right, and perhaps if more children experienced this on a regular basis, more adults would instinctively love poetry too.
Last year I was contacted through this blog by someone organising an art and design project on Gothic in a school. She had read my post about what Gothic is and wanted to discuss it in more detail, and we have conversed by email and telephone. The project sounded fascinating: clearly a lot of research was going into it, and looking at ways in which Gothic might be interpreted and understood by children appealed to me, too. After all, children are always simultaneously fascinated and repelled by dark corners, scary monsters and gory tales (the popularity of Horrible Histories is just a modern continuation of this), and aspects of ‘grown-up’ Gothic are manifested in children’s literature from the eighteenth century onwards. This project sought to help the young students explore what Gothic was, how it appears all around us and is important in history and in popular culture, and offered them a chance to express their interpretations of it. The project has now finished, and I can’t praise the results highly enough. The children have interpreted what they saw, in books, on visits and in the world around them, and produced some wonderful images which express some of the crucial aspects of Gothic as well as demonstrating their own artistic skills.
I include as many photos as I can here, and below is a description of the project from its organiser, whose dedication to the children’s work is exemplary and has certainly paid off.
“My name is Joy Rickman and I have been running an Art and Design club for the last eight years. I work with children aged between 8 and 11 at Mount Stewart School in Kenton, Middlesex.
I involve the children in one large project each year and this year I opted for Gothic Design. I chose this topic as I was inspired by the magnificent architecture at the St Pancras Hotel and as I noticed that at the time (last November) the British film institute were also promoting the Gothic genre. My aim was to inspire, raise awareness and educate the children about all things Gothic. Although I had an image of the finished work in my mind,
I have always found that it pays to have a flexible approach to fit in with the children’s abilities. I started my research at my local library, but I was disappointed with the lack of information available there. Eventually I found a performing arts library which had superb books on Gothic architecture and film.
I presented the children with various images of Gothic design and ornament as well as famous characters from the world of Gothic fiction. We looked at costume, jewellery and literature as well as easily identifiable architectural features and areas such as Camden market. A few weeks into the project some of the children started to notice Gothic features in local churches and a few brought in samples of jewellery and studded boots!
As the project developed, I noticed that several children had a real flair for Gothic architecture. I named this group “The Architects” and gave them the challenge of designing a Gothic castle, working from just a couple of drawings. I have three display boards to use and as the design of the castle progressed it became clear that it would take centre stage. The other two boards were used for displays of Gothic fiction and elements of Gothic design.
In April the Art Club visited Strawberry Hill House. I knew that seeing and feeling the Gothic atmosphere would make the project come alive, and sure enough the children thought the best part of the visit was choosing and putting on the costumes in the dressing–up room. The children were given the task of making up their own Gothic horror story, using photographs to create a cartoon. They were given cameras and encouraged to make the best use of the interesting light effects for their photos. After lunch the children were taken into the classroom and given lap tops installed with a programme that would allow them to place their photographs into a comic format and the add appropriate speech bubbles. This proved to be quite a demanding activity requiring the children to focus as time was limited. However I knew the children would rise to the challenge and they produced some interesting stories with chilling effects.
A school trip is never complete without a trip to “the shop” and the children were very keen to buy as many mementoes as possible. It was a wonderful day and I feel it gave the children a glimpse into the intriguing Gothic world. I am always amazed at the tenacity of the children when presented with images that appear impossible to draw and understand. They very rarely give up and I think they have produced work of a very high standard. I feel immensely proud of them and feel privileged to be able to work with children who have displayed such dedication, flair and achievement.”
Congratulations to Joy and the children of Mount Stewart School’s Art and Design club! I’m looking forward to seeing what their next project is.
While preparing for a recent lecture, I spent some time investigating Emma Sandys, the sister of the more famous Frederick. This is because one of her paintings, Lady holding a Rose, hangs on the wall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, though it does not appear in their online catalogue and there is virtually no information about it. But I wanted to talk about it because I wanted to make sure that a woman was represented in my narrative, and not just as a model or ‘muse’. Consequently, I decided to explore a bit more widely, but discovered that the usual sources of information on Pre-Raphaelite women (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s books – though I gather that more recent editions than mine contain more) barely mention Emma Sandys. In fact, there is hardly anything written about her at all – though she does have a very basic Wikipedia entry which tells me her dates (1843-1877), that she painted portraits, often in a medieval style, and may have shared a studio with the debauched Frederick.
Not a great deal to go on, then. I feel a research project coming on. It transpires that many of her paintings have only recently been attributed to her: they were previously considered to have been the work of her brother, and recent research (which I haven’t been able to find out much about) has led to a number of paintings (several of them owned by the National Trust) finally being acknowledged as the work of Emma rather than Frederick. This is a common problem in art history, of course – that the default is that paintings were probably by men, though the last thirty years have seen considerable redressing of the balance.
Emma Sandys’ paintings are fascinating: her medievalism clearly owes a great deal to Pre-Raphaelitism, and she is keen on picturing women in a reverie, gazing wistfully out of the frame and away from the viewer. She captures women who are enclosed in their own worlds, and I rather like this. Her medieval aesthetic extends to several Arthurian-based paintings (as does her brother’s), including ‘Elaine’, owned by the National Trust. Elaine was the Maid of Astolat, who fell in love with Lancelot du Lac in the myths of Arthur. Her love was doomed to be unrequited, and Emma Sandys’ painting shows her dressed richly, gazing longingly and sadly as she waits for a love that will never be hers. Similar in concept is ‘Enid’, of which I haven’t been able to track down an image. Enid was the wife of Geraint, a knight of the court of King Arthur, whose relationship with her husband sours after a misunderstanding, and who is put to the test and proves her love and loyalty after many trials. These patient, enduring women seem closely related to the unnamed ‘Lady holding a Rose’ at BMAG, and my (wild, but harmless) speculation is that this woman might be Guinevere herself, with Camelot in the background, pondering her difficult situation as she is torn between her love for her husband Arthur (represented by the honeysuckle, meaning loyalty in the Victorian language of flowers) and Lancelot, indicated by the roses, which stand for passion.
We know so little of Emma Sandys’ life that we have little more than speculation to go on, but I hope to find out more. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch!
A while ago I was sent Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson to review, and have finally got round to reading it. It’s a Gothic story which begins with an antiquarian book valuer, in the best tradition of the tales of MR James, who comes across a screaming woman, Isabel, as he visits a remote country house to value a library. The novel also has echoes of The Woman in Black, as the hero, David, arrives to find the locals warning him of the bad atmosphere of the place, and is met by a mysterious and unwelcoming housekeeper. Next, we meet a mad scientist, Professor Hunt, who plays God with human lives. David becomes entangled with the woman whose life Hunt is playing with, and his own life is permanently changed by his encounter and subsequent desire to rescue Isabel.
The blurb describes it as ‘a slick Gothic tale in the English tradition, a murder mystery and a tour of Edwardian England’. Two of these descriptions are certainly true, but it’s not a murder mystery; though there is a murder, there is no mystery about it as we know the killer and the motive before it even happens. It’s certainly in the Gothic tradition, though – as I’ve suggested, it’s difficult to read the novel without recalling other Edwardian Gothic tales, though it often lacks the depths of these forebears. It is, however, mostly well-written, evoking the rural surroundings in beautiful, descriptive prose, though lacking any real way of connecting the natural world to the very unnatural doings of Professor Hunt. Occasionally a word jars in the otherwise nicely-crafted, old-fashioned prose (including overuse of the word ‘yelled’), but this is not too much of a problem. What is more of an issue is the lack of plot and of overall ideas; it’s easy to see what will happen next, removing any suspense, and the book ambles along missing opportunities to add depth and meaning (for example, relating the works of philosophy which are referenced to the plight of Isabel).
At first I was anxious to find out what Morris would find, and read eagerly, but sadly this feeling evaporates. Nonetheless, what has actually happened to Isabel’s skin is in the style of Victorian and Edwardian thrillers – melodramatic, excessive, and edging towards sci-fi, so if you want to find out more, do read it. It’s not a bad book, and it plays with some ideas of traditional Gothic, and the writing style is pleasant, but I’m afraid I was a little disappointed.
I have realised that I avoid Shakespeare. I read his plays, and watch them when I get the chance, and I’m not disputing his significance, but I feel somehow that I haven’t anything to say about his work, so I don’t tend to write about or teach him (apart from a few sonnets). This year marks 450 years since his birth, though, and I am reading a lot about him in the press and on the internet (and am looking forward to reading 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare after reading about it in the TLS). All this is making me ponder why I avoid him when I don’t subscribe to the old chestnut that ‘everything has been said’ about his work; after all, every reader and every theatregoer experiences a different Shakespeare, and every age reinvents him for their own ends, social, political and artistic. Anyway, it’s impossible to avoid Shakespeare; even if you’ve never read a word of his, our language is so saturated with expressions of his devising that he is inescapable (see here for a list!) It is Shakespeare’s language – resonant, evocative, witty, dramatic – for which he is so widely loved; his plots tend to come from other sources (I spent hours with Geoffrey of Monmouth reading up on the original ‘King Leir’ while I was doing my A-levels), and the outline of the narrative would thus often have been familiar to theatre-goers of the time. Shakespeare’s genius, then, is to use language to construct characters and situations which have us by the throat even when we know what happens. I’ve seen numerous productions of King Lear, yet every time I am on the edge of my seat, illogically hoping that Cordelia will not die.
And there is still fresh research. The TLS has recently reviewed William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, ed. Bate and Rasmussen, which offers new ways of looking at plays that Shakespeare might have had something to do with, but which cannot be wholly attributed to him. We still don’t know everything about the man and his work, nor will we ever, but that is no reason to stop trying.
Another fruitful and fascinating aspect of Shakespeare studies is the reception studies approach. How did the Victorians read Shakespeare, for example? They saw some of his work as unsuitable for family reading, so an expurgated version was produced by Thomas Bowdler (hence the word ‘bowdlerised’). We know they responded to his plays and characters creatively, in poems and paintings, for example, such as Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana‘ (based on Measure for Measure), and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the same subject, particularly by Millais (this is probably my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting).
Tennyson takes the abandoned Mariana of Shakespeare’s play and rewrites her as a melancholy Englishwoman longing for her lover to return. I sometimes teach this poem as a way of looking at the trapped position of many women of the period, condemned to a monotonous, wistful existence in which life seems to happen away from them. The poem also aestheticises women’s sadness, making it a beautiful spectacle, and this is also what Millais’s painting does – but it does more than that: Millais’s Mariana is not just a spectacle of beautiful sadness, she is also a real woman, who stretches languorously as she stands up from her sewing. This was considered shocking by many of Millais’s contemporaries, who saw a sexual resonance in Mariana’s pose.
These are small examples of how Shakespeare has been reinvented. And we continue to do this. I’ve seen some wonderful modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays; I don’t really like ones that attempt to change Shakespeare’s language, because I can’t really see the point of this, but the wonderful adaptability and ‘relevance’ (horrible word) of his work is all the more apparent in productions such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
(which I saw at 19 and loved), and the 1993 Royal Court Theatre’s production of King Lear set before and during the Great War (contrasting the power of the old with the gullibility or manipulation of the young). Read Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty First Century for more on this! I’m not an expert on how we reinvent Shakespeare, or even why, but am intrigued by how any one writer can have had such a far reaching influence. That is certainly something we should be celebrating, this and every year, and means that no-one with an interest in literature, popular culture, art, history or even social studies can afford to ignore him.
One of my research interests is the development of psychology in the 19th century, and the treatment of mental health issues in the Victorian lunatic asylums which were built across the country as the methods of treatments for lunacy developed. The Victorian lunatic asylum has become a figure of fear, a place of many horrors which people are both fascinated and repelled by. However, many of them were developed to be welcoming places, akin to country houses where patients could rest and be well treated and feel themselves at home, yet also be managed kindly, well fed, with the opportunity for exercise and gentle and appropriate work, though of course this was not always the reality and then as now it was a system frequently abused. The picture we now have of the asylums is much more Gothic, and much more frightening.
Barbara Taylor’s book, The Last Asylum, looks at the asylum at Friern (also explored in Will Self’s novel Umbrella) in particular, and considers how these buildings were used towards the end of their working lives. Alongside her memoir of mental illness, Taylor discusses the treatments available for ‘madness’, and concludes with a reflection on the system now available, of care in the community combined with therapeutic methods. She also acknowledges and addresses the uncomfortable history of lunatic asylums, including their reputation as places of misery and ill treatment. Yet she also admits that Friern was somewhere where she was able to settle and to feel safe.
Taylor, a historian, underwent psychoanalysis for a long period of time and spend some time resident in the asylum at Friern just before its closure. As a result she has considerable insights into both the modern processes of psychoanalysis and the treatment available for those with serious mental illnesses. She is startlingly frank in this memoir; she admits her behaviour was troubling, and she explores how the treatments she underwent worked for her, including the difficult, angry stages which she went through with her psychoanalyst during the uncomfortable process of transference. The journey on which Taylor goes at her treatment progresses reflects their twisting corridors and monolithic old structure of the asylum in which she is staying. She discusses the building and its complex purposes and history sensitively, considering the history of mental health treatments and, more recently, of psychoanalysis, as well as the recent development of service user groups and the concept of care in the community. She reflects on whether these changes really improve the care that psychiatric patients receive, expressing a kind of relief that she could be taken in by the ‘stone mother’ of the asylum. The book concludes:
The story of the asylum age is not a happy one. But if the death of the asylum means the demise of effective and humane mental health care, then this will be more than a bad ending to the story: it will be a tragedy.
Not only is this book as well written informative and lively as you would expect a book by such a historian to be, it also raises some important questions about the treatment of mental health, both historically and in the present day. It is, of course, also an absorbing and enjoyable read which I thoroughly recommend.
Occasionally I read a book just to see what all the fuss is about, because I like to know why a book is popular, and because my students will probably be talking about it. That’s why I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – I don’t usually read books described as ‘thrillers’. This novel has also been described as ‘female noir’, and it is dark, exploring the twisted minds of its protagonists. It has had rave reviews, considered brilliant and unputdownable by most reviewers, so I was hoping to be gripped.
The novel focuses on a husband and wife, Nick and Amy. Their marriage clearly has its problems, and the novel opens on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary. That day, Amy goes missing. The narrative, by Nick, is interspersed with segments of Amy’s diary and we learn of different things that happened both before and after her disappearance. Nick, of course, is accused of her murder, and as the story unfolds there are many twists and turns along the way. It is a gripping read; it is a novel that makes you want to know what has happened and how it will end. However it didn’t seem to me quite as brilliant a novel as I had hoped, because ultimately it’s just a thriller, and while it is imaginatively and tightly plotted, and well-written on the whole, it seems to aim to be more than a disposable read, and misses the mark.
The cover blurb, and the reviews, suggest that this is a novel which probes the human psyche, so I was assuming it would look deeply at the condition of human relationships; the blurb suggests that the book forces readers to question who we really are and whether we really know the people to whom we are close. In fact, I don’t think this promise is fulfilled. The relationship of Nick and Amy is that of sociopaths damaged by their own pasts as well as their destructive bond, and even this isn’t fully explored. Rather than asking or provoking more universal questions, the novel aims to shock and surprise. Unlikeable characters are often crucial to novels, but it is difficult to sympathise here.
I can see there are areas where the novel does aim to provoke a wider conversation relating to society. For example it asks us to think about how we socially construct ourselves, and about the stereotypes which we might fit. These stereotypes might be used to explore gender constructions and the traditional roles which gender forces upon us, but the novel stops short of this. One of my concerns when reading this novel is how misogynistic it is. It offers a worldview in which women are ultimately always to blame, whether that woman is devious, as in the case of Amy, or not, like Andie: the women of the novel take the blame while the men, however unpleasant, however difficult, are less unpleasant and difficult, and ultimately less murderous. There is also, I think, an instinctive distaste towards women’s bodies and their physicality in the novel which I find very uncomfortable.
Flynn also explores the role of the media in crime and in legal issues and how this might affect one’s judgements of a situation, though I think this is as well represented by the musical Chicago as it is by Gone Girl. So although this is a well-crafted novel which kept me reading, I can’t say I exactly enjoyed it. The ending is also rather a disappointment; it’s as though the big twists happened a little too early and as a result the ending seems tame.
There is an excellent discussion of the misogynistic worldview of Gone Girl here.