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Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest
Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest
by Susan Brigden
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 20.40

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bits and Pieces; or, The Perils of Positivism, 16 Oct 2013
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Bits and Pieces; or, The Perils of Positivism
Susan Brigden is a historian who likes to keep her nose close to the grindstone, very close. The result is a book that is overloaded with detail and lacks both a clear and guiding narrative and a considered judgment of its subject: the life and writing of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the first significant poet of the English Renaissance. One reason for this is her reluctance to form an opinion of her own. Did Wyatt have an affair with Anne Boleyn before Henry VIII showed an interest in her? She doesn't say. (The answer is: yes, almost certainly.) More importantly, amid a surplus of detail elsewhere, she gives very little detail to a fundamental aspect of Wyatt's life: its economics. What were the lands he inherited from his father in 1536? What exactly were the grants of land, especially monastic land, he received from Henry VIII in return for service at court? If he was one of the wealthiest people in England by 1541, what exactly were his sources of income? These and related questions are given only cursory treatment. Most crippling, however, is Brigden's attitude to Wyatt's poetry, the main reason why most people are interested in Wyatt in the first place. She adopts the liberal formalism that prevailed in Anglo-American criticism in the decades immediately following the second world war, the moment when the cold war was at its coldest. Poetry bears no direct relation to the writer's life; it exists in the imagination and is governed by rhetorical convention and literary influence. It is, of course, a fiction that she finds impossible to sustain; yet, nevertheless, she says next to nothing about when the poems were written, why they were written, what they were written about, who they were written to, who made up their readership, or how they were circulated, for they were, in fact, a major cultural presence in the Henrician court. This is a book for the professional historian interested in the minutiae of English international diplomacy in the 1530s. Anyone interested in the poetry would be better advised to consult Kenneth Muir, Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1963); Raymond Southall, The Courtly Maker (1964); R. A. Rebholz, Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems (1978), which contains all the information about the poetry you're likely to need and also has a valuable chronology of Wyatt's life; and Nicola Shulman, Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt (2011). Shulman's book has a cheeky rightwing bias, but she offers insights into the personal and social placing of Wyatt's poems that are beyond Brigden.


John Donne (Writers & Their Work)
John Donne (Writers & Their Work)
by Stevie Davies
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Age of Anxiety, 12 July 2011
The value of this book lies in its feminist perspective on Donne's love poems. Its central argument is that the poems reveal a profound dependence on women's love at the same time as a deep anxiety about their constancy that issues in a lingering misogyny. It is a persuasive argument. The earlier poems, especially the Elegies, are seen as exhibiting a masculine aggressiveness, while the later ones show signs of great tenderness and profound loss: the readings of `A Valediction: forbidding Mourning' and ` A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day' are among the best moments in the book. Unfortunately, the book is not immune from disquieting error. The famous passage asserting a common humanity (`No man is an island...') occurs in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, perhaps the only prose work of Donne's that can still speak to us, and not in one of the Sermons, as Davies strangely declares. It is an error that undermines her local discussion. More importantly, the book does not ask why this deep connection between anxiety and dependence within sexual relationships arose when it did at the end of the sixteenth century, and in a body of poems that were widely popular at the time. Davies sees them simply as expressive of the male mind which is endemic in civilisation. A more convincing view would place the poems within the general anxiety engendered by a new form of society. Emergent capitalism threatened to dissolve all existing relations, the most intimate among them.


John Donne, Undone
John Donne, Undone
by Thomas Docherty
Edition: Paperback

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Historical Relic, 28 Jun 2011
This review is from: John Donne, Undone (Paperback)
The 1980s in Britain saw the advent of Theory in English studies; Theory turned out to be French poststructuralism and its American practitioners. This book belongs to that historical moment. It rehearses an eclectic mix of poststructuralist positions - primarily, decentred consciousness, constant self-improvisation, textual indeterminacy - and applies them to a number of Donne's poems. The aim is that of the poststructuralist project as a whole: to deny the human origins of the text. The result is a tapestry of poststructuralist tropes at one remove from the poetry, sometimes in bizarre disproportion: a simple poem like the `Flea', for example, is made to bear the burden of phallogocentrism. There was always something troubling about the antihumanism of poststructuralism. On the one hand, it connected, through Heidegger, with the inhumanity of fascism; and on the other, with the economisation of the individual by neoliberalism, which attained a hegemonic position in the 1980s. Docherty's human subject - deracinated, infinitely changeable, essentially passive - is the ideal labour unit of international capital. This is a book for the historian of British poststructuralism; it has next to nothing to say about Donne.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 11, 2013 3:08 PM BST


Donne: The Reformed Soul
Donne: The Reformed Soul
by John Stubbs
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Author Reborn, 19 April 2011
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There are two standard biographies of John Donne. There is the account of his life by Izaak Walton published in 1640 not long after his death, and there is the account by the Australian scholar, R. C. Bald, published in 1970. Walton was a parishioner of Donne's at the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West where he was vicar as well as Dean of St Paul's (towards the end of his life Donne had no qualms about pluralism), and Bald was writing in a tradition of patient and careful scholarship that has now virtually disappeared. Stubbs combines Walton's approachability with Bald's factuality. He humanises and contextualises Bald's narrative; and he does this partly by drawing on biographies of Donne's contemporaries and partly by commenting on Donne's writing. Inevitably, there are minor errors in the text, and any commentary is always open to disagreement; Stubbs's style may also be a little too perky at times for some people. But the effect of the book is to produce an immediate and reliable human context for Donne's poetry and prose. It is genuinely enlightening, and is a further sign of the welcome rehumanisation of English studies after the recent postmodernist death of the author. Donne's tragedy was his degradation as a writer by economic necessity, by chronic unemployment: from a free-minded author of bourgeois origin to a compliant lackey of Jacobean absolutism. It is a story of especial pertinence today.


Shakespeare and Marx (Oxford Shakespeare Topics)
Shakespeare and Marx (Oxford Shakespeare Topics)
by Gabriel Egan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 32.27

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An Academic Puzzle Best Left Unsolved, 1 Dec 2009
A puzzling book. It doesn't offer a Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare. Instead, it offers an account of classical Marxist theory which inexplicably omits class as a central concept; a random review of individual writers and theoretical movements of the last century likely to be familiar to most students of English today, some of them Marxist, but only one, George Bernard Shaw, that engaged substantially with Shakespeare; and a series of uncoordinated readings of a handful of plays, only one of which, on the Winter's Tale, is both sustained and Marxist. The book has a final section which draws on two non-Marxist discourses: evolutionary biology, which is used to suggest that, like Dawkins' selfish gene, Shakespeare's plays have survived by a process of natural selection; and game theory, specifically Axelrod's Prisoner's Dilemma, which is used to argue that the altruism of the working class will in the end simply outweigh the rapacity of capital, erasing at a stroke the notion of class struggle from the book's understanding of Marxism. There is, in fact, a tradition of Marxist or Marxist-inspired interpretations of Shakespeare: books by Paul Siegel (1957, 1968, 1992), Arnold Kettle (1964), Terry Eagleton (1986), Victor Kiernan (1993, 1996), and Fintan O'Toole (2002) are some of them. There are also valuable anthologies of Marxist critical practice and theory by David Craig (1975), Francis Mulhern (1992), and Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne (1996). Egan chooses to ignore all these, not only in his discussion but also in his bibliography. If you're interested in Shakespeare and Marx, however, you'd be better advised to consult them than expend energy on this book.


Shakespeare is Hard, But So is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearean Tragedy
Shakespeare is Hard, But So is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearean Tragedy
by Fintan O'Toole
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading, 3 Nov 2009
Fintan O'Toole is the drama critic of the Irish Times and he writes with the welcome fluency of the professional journalist. He also has a clear understanding of the traditional approach to Shakespearean tragedy and, more importantly, a firm grasp of the plays' historical moment. He accordingly rejects the Aristotelian account of the plays associated with the late Victorian critic A. C. Bradley, which stresses the highly placed hero and his tragic flaw, as inappropriate to Shakespearean drama. Instead, he sees the plays more convincingly as a ritual attempt to contain the contradictions of early seventeenth-century society. The world of the tragedies is the world Shakespeare and his London audience were living in, a world where feudalism was giving way to capitalism and different sets of values overlapped and clashed. In King Lear, for example, Cordelia, who is absent from the stage for most of the drama, embodies the feudal values of hierarchy and mutuality; whereas Edmund, the supreme instance in the play of the self-seeking individualism of the new economy, together with Goneril and Regan determines most of the action, even after his death. The approach yields surprising insights. Macbeth is the individualist as murderer, but he also represents the endless desire within capitalist society to control the material future, a desire doomed to failure, as recent global events have amply demonstrated; at the end of the play, moreover, he achieves a human authenticity beyond most of the other characters in the drama by finally integrating the inner and outer self, an integration disastrously lacking in the play's action. A lively, intelligent, well-informed discussion; for anyone interested in Shakespeare, it is required reading.


THE GATHERING STORM
THE GATHERING STORM
by P N SIEGEL
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A Gem of a Book, 25 Jun 2009
This review is from: THE GATHERING STORM (Paperback)
Paul Siegel was a rare bird: a conventional American scholar, with an enviable grasp of Shakespearean criticism, who was also a classical Marxist. He argued that the Christian humanism of the Elizabethan period was the ideology of the new aristocracy under Tudor absolutism; that, as the ideology of the ruling class, it recruited the subordinate classes of the time, most notably the middle class of craftsmen and shopkeepers that Shakespeare belonged to and wrote mainly for; and that in the 1590s it began to disintegrate under the impact of the new, capitalist economy that was emerging with its own ideology of acquisitive individualism, a disintegration evident in a writer like Donne. It's a persuasive argument, and one that derives directly from Marx and Engels. In The Gathering Storm, which discusses Shakespeare's histories and Roman plays, it also involves an interesting rehabilitation of the conservative British scholar, E. M. W. Tillyard, and his work on the ruling ideas of the Elizabethans. The histories are accordingly seen as emphasising strong monarchy in the maintenance of social order and as exhibiting a providential transition from feudal disorder to Tudor stability. The Roman plays exhibit a similar pattern of providential change: from republican degeneration to the promise of imperial power under the monarchic rule of Octavius. Instead of passively accepting the ideology, however, Shakespeare engages critically with it. So the deposition of Richard II is a heinous sin, yet it renews English government; and the retributive civil war that follows is the result solely of human choices. Likewise, the love of Antony and Cleopatra is indulgent and manipulative, but it achieves a human commitment that transcends the detachment of Octavius; human detachment, nevertheless, is the precondition of imperial greatness. The book is an indispensable read for anyone interested in a historical understanding of Shakespeare or in Marxist explanation in its original and most convincing form. A gem of a book.


King Lear (The RSC Shakespeare)
King Lear (The RSC Shakespeare)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.57

13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars User-friendly but Narrowly Conceived, 1 Jun 2009
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An excellent reading copy: beautifully produced, with well-judged notes and a user-friendly manner. Its weakness is that, instead of seeing King Lear as a major cultural document written in the dominant literary form of its time - the commercial play - it sees it as primarily a text for performance. It reproduces the text included in the Complete Works published in 2007 under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC Shakespeare was a major event in English studies. It returned the plays to their condition in 1623, when the first collected edition was published under the aegis of the King's Men, the acting company Shakespeare had belonged to. Half the plays, however, had already been published individually, most of them in versions as authentic as those of the collected edition. King Lear was one of them, published in 1608, a couple of years after its first performance. The collected edition prints a shortened version of this play; it tidies it up, but also impoverishes it by omitting important moments in the play's meaning and emotion. The obvious remedy for this is to restore the omissions, which has been the common editorial practice since the eighteenth century. The RSC editors, though, committed to a view of the later text as a final acting version, are reluctant to do this, and print the omitted passages in a lengthy appendix. This is a shame; and it's a bit of an irony that the edition of Lear previously preferred by the RSC, the New Penguin Shakespeare, which restores the omissions, actually presents a version of the play that is richer and more nuanced, and one closer to Shakespeare's original and fullest conception.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2009 1:33 PM GMT


The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford Companions)
The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford Companions)
by Stanley W. Wells
Edition: Paperback
Price: 26.09

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good in Parts, 16 April 2009
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The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford Companions)A strange mixture. The entries in this handbook range from the elementary to the world-historical, with the purely fatuous in between. So there is an entry on elision; one on Marxism; and one on lords that lists the appearances of lords as characters from the Taming of the Shrew to Cymbeline. Unfortunately, the entries also tend to be highly judgmental in an old-fashioned kind of way, and judgmental from a position of social and critical conservatism. The transformation of English studies by poststructuralist, feminist, and Marxist discourses as long ago as the 1980s is simply bypassed by the book which looks back to the late Victorian critic, A. C. Bradley, for its values. Nevertheless, there is useful information in it. The entries on the acting companies and on printing and publishing are exemplary; and the entry on Shakespeare's audience is helpful, though it dodges the question of the social composition of the audience and its class identity with the acting companies, something which explains the extraordinary popularity of Shakespeare in his own time but his location within elite culture today. Most people would probably find A Dictionary of Shakespeare by Stanley Wells (Oxford, 2005) more useful. It is handy to use, whereas the Companion is unwieldy. Its entries are brief, concise, factual, and contain practically all that is known about Shakespeare - which is actually not very much. It's the volume I usually find myself referring to.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 18, 2010 6:53 AM BST


The Major Works (Oxford World's Classics)
The Major Works (Oxford World's Classics)
by William Wordsworth
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.69

26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ideal Volume, 23 Feb 2009
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The Major Works (Oxford World's Classics)One of the best collections of Wordsworth's writing currently available. Contains all the important poems in their original versions and in chronological order, including complete versions of Home at Grasmere and The Prelude, with useful notes and a brief, informative introduction. Also contains the important 1802 preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth was a talented and courageous writer as a young man and, given the chance, speaks directly to us today. His views on poetry are remarkably sane and practical, and form a useful corrective to the obscurantism of much postmodern theory. An ideal volume for student and general reader alike.


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