John Bayley

John Bayley, who died in 2015, was the first holder of the Warton chair in English literature at Oxford. He wrote 153 pieces for the LRB, some of which were collected in The Power to Delight: A Lifetime in Literature. His other books include The Romantic Survival, The Characters of Love and studies of Shakespeare, Hardy, Pushkin and Tolstoy.

I enjoyed John Lanchester on Fleming almost as much as I do Fleming himself (LRB, 5 September). Yes, Fleming wrote so well – that is the point – almost as well as Raymond Chandler, whose books he revered. (In Goldfinger Bond buys the latest Chandler at the airport.) Andrew Lycett's is indeed a splendid biography: John Pearson's is good too, and so is Donald McCormick's, which I reviewed for the...

Witty Scalpel

23 May 2002

Jenny Diski’s review of Philip Larkin’s juvenilia is the worst I have ever read in the LRB, which is saying a lot. A parade of undercover PC, it made no attempt to look closely at, or to come close to, its subject, his words, his ways of writing. In his elegy on Yeats, Auden opined that Time, indifferent to politics and ideology,Worships language and forgivesEveryone by whom it lives.‘With this...

Gide’s Cuttlefish

John Bayley, 17 February 2000

The best thing on Stendhal in English is an essay by Lytton Strachey in which he remarks the way the author denovelises the novel while skilfully retaining all its traditional apparatus. Stendhal’s imagination is a kind of parody of Scott’s: his sensibility is itself its own journal and his own memoir. Reviewing Stendhal’s last book, The Charterhouse of Parma, when it appeared in 1839, Balzac noted admiringly that the novel ‘often contained a whole book in a single page’. But that book is not one which Stendhal would have bothered to write, and no audience would have been concerned to read it.‘

From the recollections of the Roman centurion who tells his story to the children in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, we learn that a Libyan cohort, the Thirds, were stationed as part of the garrison on Hadrian’s Wall, and that when crisis comes and the ships of the Winged Hats attack out of the north, these troops were faithful and resolute: they ‘stood up in their padded cuirasses and did not whimper’. They must have felt the cold, poor devils, as did the two Indian Army corps, more than a hundred thousand men, stationed in Northern France during the damp and bitter winters of 1915 and 1916. But those troops, too, stood to it and did their duty.‘

The Politicisation of poetry can sometimes bring back to vivid life the poet’s original outlook and preconceptions: it can also misunderstand them. A poem that comes off, and takes off, does so in terms of its own language, irrespective of ideological impulses and overtones. Time, as Auden observed,

In their very different ways, the three most prominent Oxford professors of English since the war have all been populist pretenders. John Carey, scourge of Modernist ‘intellectuals’...

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The first thing Alzheimer’s disease took away from Iris Murdoch was her luminous powers. At a conference in Israel in 1994, she was unable to answer her audience’s questions. In 1995,...

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Distant Sheep

Penelope Fitzgerald, 21 July 1994

John Bayley’s new novel is largely about those who are had on, or taken in, and this may well include his readers, who need to keep their wits about them. To begin with, he conjures up a...

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A Poetry of Opposites

C.H. Sisson, 9 July 1992

Whatever may now be the state of the market for A Shropshire Lad, the poetry of A.E. Housman has certainly been among the most read of the 20th century. Or in the 20th century, for the earlier...

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In a recent issue of Index on Censorship, Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright and essayist who has spent long periods in prison, tells the following tale: A friend of mine who is...

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The Things about Bayley

Nicholas Spice, 7 May 1987

There is a certain kind of knowledge – perhaps the most important – that cannot be explicitly taught or diligently learnt. For example, a tribe of Indians on the river Xingu lives on...

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Denis Donoghue, 21 June 1984

One of Anthony Thwaite’s poems, ‘Tell it slant’, swerves from Emily Dickinson’s line ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ to settle upon an aesthetic...

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Anne Barton, 2 July 1981

Twenty-one years ago, in The Characters of Love, John Bayley suggested that ‘there is a sense in which the highest compliment we can pay to Shakespeare is to discuss his great plays as if...

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