Close Readings

Our pioneering podcast subscription: two contributors explore an area of literature through a selection of key works, providing an introductory grounding like no other.

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Human Conditions: ‘The Intimate Enemy’ by Ashis Nandy

Pankaj Mishra and Adam Shatz, 13 June 2024

10 June 2024 · 13mins

Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy is a study of the psychological toll of colonialism on both the coloniser and colonised, showing how Western conceptions of masculinity and adulthood served as tools of conquest. Pankaj Mishra joins Adam to unpack Nandy’s subtle and unexpected lines of thought and to explain why the book remains as innovative today as it did in 1983.

On Satire: 'The Dunciad' by Alexander Pope

Clare Bucknell and Colin Burrow, 13 June 2024

4 June 2024 · 12mins

Nobody hated better than Alexander Pope. Despite his reputation as the quintessentially refined versifier of the early 18th century, he was also a class A, ultra-pure, surreal, visionary mega-hater, and The Dunciad is his monument to the hate he felt for almost all the other writers of his time.

28 May 2024 · 35mins

Mark and Seamus discuss Shelley’s angry, violent poem written in response to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, in which a demonstration in favour of parliamentary reform was attacked by local yeomanry, leaving 18 people dead and hundreds injured.

Among the Ancients II: Plato

Emily Wilson and Thomas Jones, 10 June 2024

24 May 2024 · 11mins

Plato’s Symposium, his philosophical dialogue on love, or eros, was probably written around 380 BCE, but it’s set in 416, during the uneasy truce between Athens and Sparta in the middle of the Peloponnesian War. Socrates and his friends, having had a heavy evening the night before, decide to go easy on the wine and instead take turns making speeches in praise of love – at least until Alcibiades turns up, very late and very drunk.

Medieval LOLs: Dame Syrith

Irina Dumitrescu and Mary Wellesley, 10 June 2024

18 May 2024 · 34mins

Dame Syrith, a story of lust, deception and a mustard-eating dog, is medieval humour at its silliest and most troubling. Mary and Irina explore the surprising representations of old women, magic and consent in fabliaux, the poem’s possible role as a pedagogical tool, and medieval audiences’ love for the procuress trope.


Human Conditions: ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ by V.S. Naipaul

Pankaj Mishra and Adam Shatz, 13 June 2024

10 May 2024 · 10mins

Pankaj Mishra joins Adam Shatz to discuss A House for Mr Biswas, a pathbreaking work of postcolonial literature and a particularly powerful influence on Pankaj himself. They explore Naipaul’s fraught relationship to modernity, and the tensions between his attachment to individual freedom and his insistence on the constraints imposed by history. 

On Satire: John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’

Clare Bucknell and Colin Burrow, 10 June 2024

4 May 2024 · 13mins

In The Beggar’s Opera we enter a society turned upside down, where private vices are seen as public virtues, and the best way to survive is to assume the worst of everyone. The only force that can subvert this state of affairs is romantic love – an affection, we discover, that satire finds hard to cope with.

28 April 2024 · 36mins

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s deeply disturbing 1847 poem about a woman escaping slavery and killing her child was written to shock its intended white female readership to the abolitionist cause. Mark and Seamus look at the origins of the poem and its story, and its place among other abolitionist narratives of the time.

Among the Ancients II: Pindar and Bacchylides

Emily Wilson and Thomas Jones, 10 June 2024

24 April 2024 · 11mins

In the fifth episode of Among the Ancients II we turn to Greek lyric, focusing on Pindar’s victory odes, considered a benchmark for the sublime since antiquity, and the vivid, narrative-driven dithyrambs of Bacchylides.

Medieval LOLs: Fabliaux

Mary Wellesley and Irina Dumitrescu, 10 June 2024

18 April 2024 · 41mins

Fabliaux were short, witty tales originating in northern France between the 12th and 14th centuries, often featuring crafty characters in rustic settings and overwhelmingly concerned with money and sex. In this episode Irina and Mary look at two of these comic verses, both containing surprisingly explicit sexual language, and consider the ways in which they influenced Boccaccio, Chaucer and others.

Human Conditions: ‘The Human Condition’ by Hannah Arendt

Judith Butler and Adam Shatz, 10 June 2024

10 April 2024 · 12mins

In the fourth episode of Human Conditions, the last of the series with Judith Butler, we fittingly turn to The Human Condition (1956).  Judith and Adam discuss Hannah Arendt’s continued relevance and shortcomings, the book’s many surprising and baffling turns, and the transformative power of forgiveness.

On Satire: The Earl of Rochester

Clare Bucknell and Colin Burrow, 10 June 2024

4 April 2024 · 13mins

According to one contemporary, the Earl of Rochester was a man who, in life as well is in poetry, ‘could not speak with any warmth, without repeated Oaths, which, upon any sort of provocation, came almost naturally from him.’ Clare and Colin consider why Restoration England was such a satirical hotbed, and describe the ways in which Rochester, with a poetry rich in bravado but shot through with anxiety, transformed the persona of the satirist.

Political Poems: 'Easter 1916' by W.B. Yeats

Seamus Perry and Mark Ford, 10 June 2024

28 March 2024 · 33mins

Yeats’s great poem about the uprising of Irish republicans against British rule on 24 April 1916 marked a turning point in Ireland’s history and in Yeats’s career.

Among the Ancients II: Herodotus

Emily Wilson and Thomas Jones, 10 June 2024

24 March 2024 · 10mins

Some of the most compelling stories of the Classical world come from Herodotus‘ Histories, an account of the Persian Wars and a thousand things besides. Emily and Tom chart a course through Herodotus‘ history-as-epic, discussing how best to understand his approach to history, ethnography and myth.


Medieval LOLs: Old English Riddles

Irina Dumitrescu and Mary Wellesley, 10 June 2024

18 March 2024 · 41mins

Riddles are an ancient and universal form, but few people seem to have enjoyed them more than English Benedictine monks. The Exeter Book, a tenth century monastic collection of Old English verse, builds on the riddle tradition in two striking ways: first, the riddles don’t come with answers; second, they are sexually suggestive.