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.

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,

Show a primitive man a submarine, or a sophisticated one an elephant, and both have to have time to get used to the experience before they know what it is they are seeing. So it probably is with the experience of battle. The participant does not know what happened until he can work out in the language of his head (or of his tribe) some way of formalising it. Asked back in England what the retreat to Dunkirk had been like, a languid young officer is said to have replied: ‘My dear – the noise, and the people.’ As good an impression as any that could be devised from (in his case) normal social experience. The fragment of Beowulf known as ‘The Finnsburgh Episode’ provides a standard formula for expressing the shock-horror impact of a surprise attack on a heroic society. The Battle of Maldon is justly famous for the Homeric way it puts appropriate sentiments – which in its context also sound vivid and convincing – into the mouths of soldiers on the verge of death and defeat.’‘

At the height of one of the IRA bombing campaigns, a sergeant in the Irish Guards, on duty outside the barracks, was asked by some British civilians what he thought about the campaign. He didn’t think about it: he had received orders about security but was indifferent to the cause of all the fuss. A professional soldier from Limerick, he got on with his job. A chastened Kipling, who had once held that everyone must have the strongest views about everything where race and nationhood were concerned, would none the less have respected the sergeant’s attitude. Time and again in this history he emphasises that ‘a battalion’s field is bounded by its own vision.’ Still more so, by implication, its views of the matter in hand.‘

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’...

Read More

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,...

Read More

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...

Read More

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...

Read More

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...

Read More

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...

Read More


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...

Read More


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...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences