Category Archives: Study

The First Epic Poem: The Descent of Inanna

Dr Oliver Tearle

The First Epic PoemWhat’s the oldest epic poem in the world? Did it all begin with Homer’s Iliad? In one sense, we can grant this as an acceptable proposition, but if we wish to trace the true origins of ‘the epic’ as a literary form, we need to go back considerably further into the very hazy early years of literary history.
For the epic began in the Middle East with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of a Sumerian king who possesses seemingly inhuman strength and who meets his match in the mysterious figure of Enkidu; this poem also, notably, features the Flood motif we also find in the Book of Genesis. But even Gilgamesh wasn’t the first epic. That honour should probably go to The Descent of Inanna.
The Descent of Inanna describes, as the title suggests, the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld – Inanna being the daughter of Nanna, and the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and wisdom, among other things. Although The Descent of Inanna is a short work (it runs to little over 400 lines, making it a little shorter than a poem like The Waste Land), it contains many of the elements we associate with epic poetry (such as the descent into the underworld), and elements of the story are found in the later myths of the descent of Ishtar and the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. You can read a modern English translation of The Descent of Inanna here.
Read the complete excerpt from The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.


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A Final Reminder About “Murder in the Cathedral”

Murder in the CathedralA final reminder that on this Thursday, May 24, Bill Ellis will lead a reading and discussion of T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.
Click here for the full text of Murder in the Cathedral
Click here to listen to an 11-episode radio play edition of Murder in the Cathedral. (other versions are also available on YouTube).
See also:

Cinema and Poetry: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral
Common Liberation – The Idea Of Salvation In The Plays Of T.S. Eliot

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Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the Age of Brexit

by Dr Oliver Tearle 

TS Eliot's The Waste LandIt’s nearly a century since T. S. Eliot, having just turned thirty, announced his intention to write a long poem about the contemporary world. Several letters he wrote in 1919 see him declaring this ambition to move beyond the dramatic monologues of his first volume (most famously ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ but also ‘Portrait of a Lady’) and the witty quatrain poems of his second collection (of which ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ is a notable example). But what form this new poem would take, Eliot did not know at the time. He just knew that it would be longer than anything he’d attempted before.
Now, in 2018, returning to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a strange experience which reinforces the sense I’ve had for a long while that phrases and images from Eliot’s poetry read like some sort of uncanny prophecy of a future world which he couldn’t know. In 2005, shortly after the terrible tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and in the immediate wake of the 7/7 London bombings, including the Edgware Road bombing which killed six people, I remember reading ‘The Dry Salvages’ and being struck by the oddly vatic quality to Eliot’s lines, ‘When there is distress of nations and perplexity / Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.’ The way ‘When there’ shrinks to ‘Whether’ at the head of the two adjacent lines, and how ‘nations’ thins to ‘Asia’ at the exactly corresponding point in each of the two lines, made this already tight couplet seem positively watertight. What’s especially strange is that these lines come immediately after a long consideration of humankind’s fondness for divination and prophecy.
The ‘falling towers’ which Eliot refers to in The Waste Land, followed by a list of cities which had been the centres of great civilisations – Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London – but had now crumbled, take on a new meaning in the wake of 9/11. But it is not just the ways in which Eliot’s poem seems to foreshadow our own time. The Waste Land is a poem that resonates differently in the Britain of Brexit.
Read the complete article
On May 24, Bill Ellis will lead a reading and discussion of T. S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral.” See the SCHEDULE PAGE for links to texts and relevant articles.

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Cerys Matthews on setting Dylan Thomas’s poems to music

Dylan_ThomasDylan Thomas, whose centenary we will celebrate on Monday [written on Friday 24 October 2014], was the most musical of poets. His work is so full of rhythm and melody that one of life’s great pleasures is to read him aloud, feeling those syllables roll around your mouth while the rhythms find their ebb and flow. It is no surprise that his poetry has exerted a special appeal to composers. It was his childhood friend Daniel Jones – a fellow Kardomah boy with whom Dylan would talk “Einstein and Epstein, Stravinsky and Greta Garbo, death and religion, Picasso and girls” – who provided music for the songs in Under Milk Wood as well as dedicating his Fourth Symphony to Dylan’s memory. Stravinsky himself set “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Later, jazz maestro Stan Tracey, composers John Corigliano, Mark Anthony Turnage and many others would be inspired by his work.
I was brought up in Swansea. Our house enjoyed almost the same view over the crescent of Swansea Bay as had Dylan’s childhood home in Cwmdonkin Drive. I knew about Dylan and I read his work. But the idea that I should set his work to music didn’t come until about 10 years ago, when I was living far from Swansea, in South Carolina.

Read the complete article
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.


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Youth and Age

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Youth and AgeVerse, a breeze mid blossoms straying,

Where Hope clung feeding, like a bee—

Both were mine! Life went a-maying

With Nature, Hope, and Poesy,

When I was young!
When I was young?—Ah, woful When!

Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!

This breathing house not built with hands,

This body that does me grievous wrong,

O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands,

How lightly then it flashed along:—

Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,

On winding lakes and rivers wide,

That ask no aid of sail or oar,

That fear no spite of wind or tide!

Nought cared this body for wind or weather

When Youth and I lived in’t together.
Flowers are lovely; Love is flower-like;

Friendship is a sheltering tree;

O! the joys, that came down shower-like,

Of Friendship, Love, and Liberty,

Ere I was old!

Ere I was old? Ah woful Ere,

Which tells me, Youth’s no longer here!

O Youth! for years so many and sweet,

’Tis known, that Thou and I were one,

I’ll think it but a fond conceit—

It cannot be that Thou art gone!
Thy vesper-bell hath not yet toll’d:—

And thou wert aye a masker bold!

What strange disguise hast now put on,

To make believe, that thou are gone?

I see these locks in silvery slips,

This drooping gait, this altered size:

But Spring-tide blossoms on thy lips,

And tears take sunshine from thine eyes!

Life is but thought: so think I will

That Youth and I are house-mates still.
Dew-drops are the gems of morning,

But the tears of mournful eve!

Where no hope is, life’s a warning

That only serves to make us grieve,

When we are old:

That only serves to make us grieve

With oft and tedious taking-leave,

Like some poor nigh-related guest,

That may not rudely be dismist;

Yet hath outstay’d his welcome while,

And tells the jest without the smile.
‘Youth and Age’, as the title suggests, explores the passing of time and the onset of old age. What does it mean to grow old? In this great Romantic poem about ageing, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) grapples with this very question.

Read the complete short analysis

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Working with Composers

Ursula Vaughan Williams

From the March/April 1991 issue of PN Review
Working with ComposersWorking with composers is a curious, and usually delightful experience. When a musician likes words that have been already been written that he or she has read either in manuscript, or that have already been published, and decided that they suggest music, of course the writer’s part is a passive one. This happens frequently when the author is dead – preferably long enough to be out of copyright. When the author is alive the composer will probably set the poem or poems before they tell the writer (here I mean me) and eventually there is a concert at which I hear their work, or a cassette arrives from America, or some other distant place, and I discover if this involuntary collaboration is a Good Thing, or not.

Read the complete article: Working-with-composers
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by a piece of music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.

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Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think


Understanding PoetryDo you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? What does this word “purple” or “flower” or “grass” really mean? Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which takes readers away from its true strangeness, and makes most of us feel as if we haven’t studied enough to read it.
This attitude is pervasive. To take just one example, in his introduction to “The Best Poems of the English Language,” Harold Bloom writes, “The art of reading poetry begins with mastering allusiveness in particular poems, from the simple to the very complex.” This sounds completely reasonable, but is totally wrong. The art of reading poetry doesn’t begin with thinking about historical moments or great philosophies. It begins with reading the words of the poems themselves.

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Ezra Pound and “The Wasteland”


The-Wasteland-MS-2Typescript on three leaves of this section, with Eliot’s additions, and Vivien Eliot’s comments, in pencil. Pound’s criticism is in pencil and in ink. Line 16: laquenaria=laquearia.
A final reminder that Bill Ellis will lead us on a reading and discussion of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this Thursday, April 26. Listen to The Waste Land read by Alec Guinness.

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Thomas Kinsella: ‘eliciting order from significant experience’

Adrienne Leavy

Thomas_KinsellaDespite Kinsella’s radical change in form, his thematic concerns have remained the search for meaning and self-knowledge, the power of love, artistic creativity and the artist’s role

Born into the working-class neighbourhood of Inchicore, Dublin, in 1928, just six years after the founding of the Irish Free State, Thomas Kinsella is one of the most distinguished living Irish poets, with a body of work unlike that of any other Irish writer. Kinsella’s remarkable art is a reflection of his lifelong search for understanding and meaning amid the chaos of lived experience, and he has characterised his work as a process of “eliciting order from significant experience.” A prolific poet, he has published more than 30 collections, starting with Poems in 1956 and, most recently, Late Poems, in 2013. Kinsella continues to be a critical voice in Irish poetry, as evidenced in the latest edition of Poetry Ireland Review, published on September 12th, 2015. Edited by Vona Groarke, this special issue dedicated to WB Yeats includes detailed analysis by Kinsella of two important early Yeats poems, To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time and To Ireland in the Coming Times.
Kinsella did not start out as a writer, but instead spent many years working in the Irish Civil Service. He attended the Inchicore Model School and the O’Connell Christian Brothers’ Secondary School, where he won a scholarship to study science at University College Dublin. Realising that science was not the path he wished to pursue, he took the entrance exam for the Civil Service, and in 1946 he began working as a junior executive officer in the Land Commission, eventually rising up the ranks to the position of private secretary to TK Whitaker in the Department of Finance. While working as a civil servant by day, Kinsella was writing at night in his city-centre flat on Baggot Street, a location celebrated in one of his best-known early poems, Baggot Street Deserta. During this time he met the two people who were to have a formative influence on his life and career, Liam Miller, the publisher of the Dolmen Press, and Eleanor Walsh, his future wife. In 1955 Tom and Eleanor were married, and from their union emerge many poems on the theme of romantic love and its ability to survive the ordeals of life. Love poems commemorating their relationship are a large part of Kinsella’s first major collection, Another September (1958), which brought him to the attention of English as well as Irish readers. Subsequent early work garnered great critical acclaim in Ireland and England, and he received numerous awards including the Guinness Poetry Award in 1958 and the Denis Devlin Memorial Award in 1967.
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The Time for Art Is Now

By Claire Messud

In these relentlessly dark and riven times, I find myself beset by a near ravenous hunger for beauty. My spirit lurches at a line of Shakespeare or Louise Glück—“All fear gives way: the light / Looks after you … ” My eyes linger on the photographs of Nadav Kander, the paintings of Marlene Dumas, the sculptures of Sarah Sze. I reassure myself of the possibility of serenity by recalling Willa Cather’s masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or by listening to the extraordinary voice of Hannah Reid, the vocalist of London Grammar. I long for that expansion of my soul.
We have so much to learn. The ideals that have shaped my entire life thus far have been called into question by the election of this so-called president. They are ideals worth fighting for: a faith, as Martin Luther King assured us, that the long arc of history bends toward justice; that societies have the desire and capacity for improvement; that reflection and communication will foster greater compassion; and a belief that one of the most powerful paths to progress is through art and literature. I have believed in the value of knowledge and of truth. And I have believed that the quality of a life is not measured by money, celebrity, or material goods but by richness of mind, generosity of spirit, and by meaningful human relationships.
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Claire Messud is a recipient of Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Author of five previous works of fiction including her most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family.
The Time for Art Is Now

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