Archive | June, 2020

Holding Emily Bronte Prisoner

22 Jun

Many of us know Emily Bronte only from her novel Wuthering Heights.

And many of us know Wuthering Heights only from Kate Bush’s pop song.

“Heathcliff, It’s me, It’s Cathy, I’ve come home,” sang Bush, capturing either Heathcliff’s half crazed grief for his deceased lover, or the eternal moan of that lover’s spirit in the wailing winds of the moors.

Death – and the attendant possibility of existence beyond death – was more immediate to Bronte than to us.

Before she was ten years old, she had lost her mother and two elder sisters. Before she herself died, at only thirty, she had also lost her brother. Her younger sister was to follow her to the grave soon after.

(I once set a play in Elizabethan England – over two centuries before Bronte’s time – and several audience members, including a reviewer, expressed incredulity that my protagonist had lost several children in their infancy. In the pain of enduring my play, perhaps they forgot how fortunate we moderns are.)

Wuthering Heights is considered a literary classic, but Bronte did not live to see fame. I doubt she would have wanted it.


In addition to her novel, she wrote hundreds of poems, but only published twenty-one.

One of these is “The Prisoner”.

The young female protagonist whose detention is presented in the poem is not a criminal, but is most likely a victim of changing power relations between competing families. Her relatives and friends have been killed. She soon will die. Such machinations were not the stuff of Victorian England, but it was not a human experience the poet needed to invent.

In just over sixty lines of verse, Bronte presents convincing dramatic portraits of three human souls: the young master, whose privilege leads him to the self-justifying assumption that those who suffer must be bad; the gaoler, whose heart has been hardened by daily witness to cruelty; and the prisoner, who gently laughs at her captors and shares her vision “divine”.

The critic Spurgeon called it “one of the most perfect mystic poems in the English language”.

Dare we write such stuff in theatre?

A good dramatist would make easy work of the young master and the gaoler.

But the prisoner….?

“ …first, a hush of peace—a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast—unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.

“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels”

Do we simply not believe that human life has such dimensions?

Dare we look?

The liquefaction of Julia’s clothes

18 Jun

“Gather ye rose buds while ye may” is Robert Herrick’s most famous line.

It’s a call to seize the day, to make the most of our short lives.

The poem’s title is “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and it advises them not to be coy, but to go marry.

Herrick’s lyrics, written in the 17th century, are charming, life affirming – and often addressed to lovers.

In delightful, easy-to-read verse they celebrate female beauty and sensuality. They sing of the power of love and of total devotion.

There are poems for Sylvia.

For Electra.

For Julia.

For Corinna.

For Anthea.

And none of these women existed.

Or so it’s been claimed.

Herrick lived to his eighties. Eschewing his own advice, he never married – implying an inherently sexist perspective, or the utter irrelevance of poetry.

The second of these possibilities receives insufficient notice nowadays, so let me expand.

Does it matter that Herrick’s impassioned verse was addressed to fictional characters?

Cynics will argue that the object of our affection is always a fiction, a mere projection of our own fantasies, an emotional amusement only made possible by the eternal mutability and essential unknowability of the Other. From a nebulous, swirling cloud of vapour we see the expected rainbow.

But not everyone is a cynic, and if fantasy speaks to us, perhaps it’s because the glory it clothes is ineffable.


Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows

That liquefaction of her clothes.


Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see

That brave vibration each way free,

O how that glittering taketh me!



Losing Paradise

17 Jun

I chose to spend the pandemic as a poet.

During the day I have experimented with multiple forms.

At night, I read.

My shelves bulge with volumes of verse I’ve bought over the years – books often purchased on the strength of a single sonnet. Shelley’s Collected Works bought for “Ozymandias”. Barret Browning procured for “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Shakespeare’s sonnets snapped up second hand for “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Books bought and never read.

I do not blame only myself.

We’re taught poetry is difficult. We are told it is meant to be analysed – that is, pulled apart –  and then from the remaining mess we’re expected to fashion an academic essay that fits whatever is this year’s fashion. It’s a bit like forcing your dog to chomp at a pearl necklace and then carefully inspecting his turds in the hope of finding beauty.

The last few months I have read poetry purely for pleasure. Volume after volume, cover to cover. No agonising, only enjoyment. I do read everything twice; I’m not going to miss a Grange simply because I awkwardly gulped my first mouthful. But playfully I push on. No lingering over the needlessly esoteric. No pandering to thoughts and feelings I deem artificial. My shelves are full of dead poets. They wrote for me. And I’m taking it all.

Which brings me to Paradise Lost.

Milton’s epic was set for my second year at uni. At age 19 it seemed unreadable. The assessment concerned a passage from Book Six …. out of the twelve. I struggled through to Book Six, a dog that by page 1 knew this was not fare meant for my mouth.

I expect I got a C.

I pity the marker who had to rake through all that excrement.

Thirty five years later, I owe Milton an apology. And I owe myself one. Perhaps I wasn’t ready while still in my teens, but did I need to wait until I was in my fifties?

What impresses most about Milton is his utter audacity.

The introduction to my edition quotes the critic Northrop Frye: ‘In listening to the Kyrie of the Bach B minor Mass we feel what amazing things the fugue can do; in listening to the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 106, we feel what amazing things can be done with the fugue.”

Milton does something amazing with the form, but he also does something amazing full stop. He attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man.”

He fails. Of course.

But what an exhilarating failure! Milton’s Fall of Humankind might teach you little about God – but it teaches you a hell of a lot about being human.

Let me pull this back to theatre.

Because we have so many highly trained professionals in this town, the danger is we will be (to use Frye’s distinction) more “Bach” than “Beethoven”. Professionalism means we aim for certain standards: we try to get things right. Our goal is to make theatre that is perfect.

“But what can be wrong with perfection?” you ask.

Nothing. By definition.

Except that ….. when we cease to right, we can start to be human.

Some paradises are meant to be lost.