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Hail, Muse!

Seamus Perry: Byron v. Shelley

6 February 2003
The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time 
by Ian Gilmour.
Chatto, 410 pp., £25, June 2002, 0 7011 7110 3
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Byron and Romanticism 
by Jerome McGann.
Cambridge, 321 pp., £47.50, August 2002, 0 521 80958 4
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... Ian Gilmour’s deft and learned book is concerned with the lives of Byron and Shelley up to the morning on which Byron woke up and found himself famous. The poets weren’t to meet for another four years, so Gilmour isn’t telling the history of their acquaintance but its prehistory; and not the least of his book’s many virtues is the way it makes you realise what an odd combination they made ...

In Flesh-Coloured Silk

Seamus Perry: Romanticism

4 December 2003
Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory 
by Paul Hamilton.
Chicago, 316 pp., £17.50, August 2003, 0 226 31480 4
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... in Biographia, ‘not seldom a matter-of-factness in certain poems’: an ‘accidentality’ in the poems’ representation of the world – not, that is to say, ‘the music of what happens’ (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase) but, well, just what happens. Wordsworth frequently writes with soaring grandeur about the status and function of the poet; but in his most telling account, the ‘Preface’ to ...

Everything is good news

Seamus Perry: Dylan Thomas’s Moment

20 November 2014
The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The New Centenary Edition 
edited by John Goodby.
Weidenfeld, 416 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 0 297 86569 8
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Under Milk Wood: The Definitive Edition 
edited by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud.
Phoenix, 208 pp., £7.99, May 2014, 978 1 78022 724 5
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Collected Stories 
by Dylan Thomas.
Phoenix, 384 pp., £8.99, May 2014, 978 1 78022 730 6
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A Dylan Thomas Treasury: Poems, Stories and Broadcasts 
Phoenix, 186 pp., £7.99, May 2014, 978 1 78022 726 9Show More
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... but ‘extensions of his power to charm’. For all its pleasures, it is hard not to think of the play as a capitulation to that threat, so long resisted in his verse – ‘an idyllic romp’, as Seamus Heaney put it, ‘as if The Joy of Sex were dreamt under the canvas of a Welsh eisteddfod’. Heaney underplays the great tugging undercurrent of desolation within the work, but I think the most ...

Self-Management

Seamus Perry: Southey’s Genius for Repression

26 January 2006
Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793-1810 
edited by Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts.
Pickering & Chatto, 2624 pp., £450, May 2004, 1 85196 731 1
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... On 15 June 1794, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, prodigious, garrulous and chubby, his brilliant undergraduate career in tatters, set out from Cambridge in the company of a steady companion called Hucks, picturesquely intent on a walking tour of North Wales. Their route took them through Oxford, where they looked up one of Coleridge’s old schoolmates, who took the visitors to see a notorious democrat at ...

Look on the Bright Side

Seamus Perry: Anna Letitia Barbauld

25 February 2010
Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment 
by William McCarthy.
Johns Hopkins, 725 pp., £32, December 2008, 978 0 8018 9016 1
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... Until 15 or 20 years ago most students of English literature would have known one thing about Anna Letitia Barbauld, which was her appearance in a droll anecdote told by Samuel Taylor Coleridge towards the end of his life and recorded in the posthumous volume of his Table Talk. ‘Mrs Barbauld told me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were – that it was improbable, and had no ...

Regrets, Vexations, Lassitudes

Seamus Perry: Wordsworth’s Trouble

18 December 2008
William Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’: A Casebook 
edited by Stephen Gill.
Oxford, 406 pp., £19.99, September 2006, 0 19 518092 5
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... The greatest long poem in modern English letters began its life, unexpectedly, in the winter of 1798, in an uncomfortable lodging in Goslar, Lower Saxony, where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy found themselves marooned for four miserable months. The weather was terrible – it was reputedly the coldest winter of the century – and leaving town was practically impossible: ‘When we left the room ...

Are we there yet?

Seamus Perry: Tennyson

20 January 2011
The Major Works 
by Alfred Tennyson, edited by Adam Roberts.
Oxford, 626 pp., £10.99, August 2009, 978 0 19 957276 2
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... When Auden announced in his preface to a new selection that Tennyson was ‘undoubtedly the stupidest’ of all the English poets he must have known that he was asking for trouble. Trouble duly came in the shape of Sir Desmond MacCarthy, who doggedly stood up in the Sunday Times for the quality of Tennyson’s mind, deplored Auden’s account of the great man as ‘very patronising’, then sought ...

Drugs, anyone?

Seamus Perry: George Meredith

17 June 2015
Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside, with Poems and Ballads 
by George Meredith, edited by Criscillia Benford and Rebecca Mitchell.
Yale, 390 pp., £40, April 2015, 978 0 300 17317 8
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... German​ scholars used to worry about something they called ‘Das Adam Smith Problem’. There seemed to be two of him: one was the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, awash with warm-hearted fellow feeling; the other, the hard-nosed realist of The Wealth of Nations, a work which seemed to describe a world governed by a heedless disregard for anyone other than oneself. These days the authorities ...

The Shoreham Gang

Seamus Perry: Samuel Palmer

5 April 2012
Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer 
by Rachel Campbell-Johnston.
Bloomsbury, 382 pp., £25, June 2011, 978 0 7475 9587 8
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... A bearded patriarch, possibly in Elizabethan dress, rests on his elbow, stretched out on a snug little hillock in the middle of a wedge-shaped field of corn. He is leaning against some sort of natural cushion, and it’s possible he is asleep, though he has a large book open in front of him so perhaps it’s just that his eyes are cast down to scrutinise its pages. But that would be difficult since ...

Wielded by a Wizard

Seamus Perry: Shelley’s Kind of Glee

3 January 2019
Selected Poems and Prose 
by Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy.
Penguin, 893 pp., £12.99, January 2017, 978 0 241 25306 9
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... Quite a few​ of Shelley’s contemporaries came to the view that he wasn’t all there – the inhabitants of Marlow, for example, who were treated to the recurrent spectacle of a disgraceful young radical poet returning distractedly to his cottage after long scrambles in the woods. ‘He was the most interesting figure I ever saw,’ a child witness recalled later in life, still much struck. ‘His ...

What a carry-on

Seamus Perry: W.S. Graham

18 July 2019
W.S. Graham: New Selected Poems 
edited by Matthew Francis.
Faber, 144 pp., £12.99, September 2018, 978 0 571 34844 2
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W.S. Graham 
edited by Michael Hofmann.
NYRB, 152 pp., £9.99, October 2018, 978 1 68137 276 1
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... Many poets​ end up having a hard life but W.S. Graham went out of his way to have one. His dedication to poetry, about which he seems never to have had a second thought, was remorseless, and his instinct, surely a peculiarly modern one, was that the way to nurture his creativity was to have a really bad time. ‘The poet or painter steers his life to maim//Himself somehow for the job,’ he wrote ...

Against the Same-Old Same-Old

Seamus Perry: The Brownings

3 November 2016
The Brownings’ Correspondence, Vol 21 
edited by Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, Joseph Phelan, Edward Hagan and Rhian Williams.
Wedgestone, 432 pp., $110, April 2014, 978 0 911459 38 8
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The Brownings’ Correspondence, Vol 22 
edited by Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, Joseph Phelan, Edward Hagan and Rhian Williams.
Wedgestone, 430 pp., $110, June 2015, 978 0 911459 39 5
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Robert Browning 
edited by Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan.
Oxford, 904 pp., £95, December 2014, 978 0 19 959942 4
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Browning Studies: Being Select Papers by Members of the Browning Society 
edited by Edward Berdoe.
Routledge, 348 pp., £30, August 2015, 978 1 138 02488 5
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... Romanticism​ bequeathed a good many things to the beleaguered modern imagination, one of the most provoking of which was the thought that it should get out more. That bit of advice proved all the more challenging because it contradicted the other basic idea which the Romantics left behind – namely, that what mattered was staying inside, wrapped in the private world of subjectivity and ‘mental ...

Half-Fox

Seamus Perry: Ted Hughes

29 August 2013
Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar 
edited by Keith Sagar.
British Library, 340 pp., £25, May 2013, 978 0 7123 5862 0
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Ted and I: A Brother’s Memoir 
by Gerald Hughes.
Robson, 240 pp., £16.99, October 2012, 978 1 84954 389 7
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... Among the many delights to be found in Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse is a squib by Thomas Holcroft, provoked by some disparaging remarks Voltaire made about Shakespeare. In fact, Voltaire was perfectly ready to concede that Shakespeare was possessed of real genius, though of a rough and ready kind, but in denying that he had ‘so much as a Spark of good Taste, or knew one ...

Cute, My Arse

Seamus Perry: Geoffrey Hill

12 September 2019
The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin 
by Geoffrey Hill.
Oxford, 148 pp., £20, April, 978 0 19 882952 2
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... You​ would be hard pressed to describe Geoffrey Hill’s final work. To say it is a sort of notebook cast as a prose poem in 271 sections of greatly varying length doesn’t get you very far. In one way it is squarely in the tradition of Pope’s Dunciad (which it mentions): it is a poem about the betrayal of England, a yowl of anger and outrage at the prevailing imbecility Hill often addressed in ...
10 May 2018
Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography 
by Edward Mendelson.
Princeton, 912 pp., £27.95, May 2017, 978 0 691 17249 1
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... What​ became of his face? In his memorial address Stephen Spender, who had known Auden since they were undergraduates, contrasted the young man, Nordic and brilliant, with a ‘second image of Wystan … of course one with which you are all familiar: the famous poet with the face like a map of physical geography, criss-crossed and river-run and creased with lines’. By the early 1970s, everyone ...

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