We know the Bard, in written word, stands tall,
When speaking of the “charming streams of life”,
The beauteous and benign that nature thralls;
The venom and the vice which us appals;
The guy did not foresee our present strife
In th’obsolete, with which his works are rife;
In poring over books in uni rooms,
With darkened bags beneath our bloodshot eyes
As that depressing essay deadline looms.
If we could only waken from their tombs
The ghosts of playwrights, bidding them to rise,
T’explain the terms which they soliloquise
To tell us what they mean by “brave bawcock”;
And pompous terms that leave us all bemused
Why alter “knap” to mean the same as ‘knock’?
Why is “cog” to deceive and “gast” to ‘shock’?
Why “touch” means ‘try’ in volumes we’ve perused?
Why must a playwright’s work be so confused?
When searching for abuse or a cheap shot
The next are used to slander and abhor:
A “coystrill”, “rudesby”, “lozel”, “jack”, or “trot”,
“Enseamed”, a “ninny” “baggage”, “caitiff”, “quat”.
To mark as “housewife” is to brand a ‘whore’,
In what we’d deem a sexist metaphor.
The Bard, make no mistakes, was not a saint,
Loving to “sponge” – er, that is, to get pissed –
To “shrift”, to confess and then to insist.
When “coiled” you got your “gaskins” in a twist
And harmless terms like “natural” and “quaint”
Were ‘nough to make a Holy Sister faint.
You often flavour lemonade with lime,
When gathering in the drinks at Happy Hour.
These days it ne’er would be a crime, and yet
To “lime” a “leman” in old Shakespeare’s time
Is to enact a deed but twice as sour,
Entrapping sweethearts in some villain’s tower.
To think, if in four hundred years, we can
Still read this verse, our plays and books embossed,
Give voice to prose and so revive a man,
Like one as fierce and pissed as Caliban.
The ousting of these terms proves high a cost,
Which ne’er should be in our translation lost.
Why Do You Have to be so Frantic?
Since the 1960s, Bob Dylan has been revered as something close to a prophet, with his work providing a voice for a generation engulfed in social unrest. Having released thirty-four studio albums, fifty-eight singles, thirteen live albums and featured thirteen times on The Rolling Stones’ ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ list, Dylan’s place in the music Hall of Fame is concrete. But for almost the entirety of his career there has been one dispute that has been repeatedly raised by music and literary critics alike, causing eyes to fill with “tears of rage” and a lot of “mixed up confusion”: should Dylan be classified as a poet?
Bound to Lose, Bound to Win
Dylan himself has taken a decidedly ambiguous approach to the issue, deliberately elusive of the topic. When questioned on this very matter at a press conference in 1965, Dylan responded with the famously obscure answer: ‘I prefer to think of myself more of a song and dance man’. The mocking stance that Dylan also takes in I Shall Be Free No.10, seen best in the line ‘Yippee I’m a poet and I know it, / I hope I don’t blow it’, once again adheres to the same trail of ambiguity that he sought publicly to present.
Disease of Conceit
The genres of poetry and music are two that are inextricably intertwined; after all, they are the two main rhythmic uses of language. There is no question that Dylan was inspired by poets. Desolation Row is a fine example of poetry’s influence over Dylan’s work, shown particularly through the line ‘Ezra Pound and T S Eliot are fighting in the tower’. Dylan has been associated with American beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara. He has also published several works of poetry, most notably Tarantula in the sixties which demonstrates his more decisive steps towards literature. Perhaps an even more obvious indication of the influence of poetry which can often be forgotten or overlooked is Dylan’s stage name itself, which was picked with the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in mind.
A particular problem in calling Dylan’s lyrics ‘poetry’ is that often their full potential and impact are only realised in performance. It is the collaboration of lyrics and music which creates the finished piece not simply pen on paper. It has been argued that without Dylan’s personality and wit on stage, along with his “barbed wire tonsils”, his lyrics simply lose the impact and the connotations that Dylan originally intended. In performance it is well known that Dylan often takes liberties with rhythm, altering from performance to performance, which means that almost everything Dylan writes is re-created live. Because of the progressive nature of Dylan’s work, on paper, the true potential of his lyrics are never fully realised.
We Better Talk This Over
Following the decision in 2007 to give schools packs of Dylan’s lyrics to study for national poetry day, the former poet laureate Andrew Motion has argued that teaching Dylan’s lyrics in school is ‘what’s needed to turn pupils who listen to rock music on to the full range of poetry’. Similarly the literary critic Professor Christopher Ricks has claimed that Dylan’s work deserves as much analysis and credibility as work by acclaimed poets such as Keats and Tennyson while Ricks has published a five hundred page analysis on the matter. Added to this is the sheer fact that Dylan has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature every year since 1997.
Round and Round We Go
There is, it would seem, no straightforward opinion as to whether Dylan’s lyrics can be constituted as poetry. His lyrics must, to an extent, be seen as distant from the conventions of poetry, not weighed down by the idea of deliberate construction – each performance must be fresh, each song a new interpretation of the time before, something that is so organic that it cannot simply be deemed poetry. But at the same time, it would be naive to suggest that his work does not rely heavily upon poeticism, enhanced because we appreciate his lyrics all the more as an art form. It is not a black and white matter, though everyone must be in agreement of one thing: Dylan’s lyrics are a work of genius. After all, is it not the mystery and enigma that draws people to Dylan’s work in the first place? Would the definition and categorisation of his work not take away from this magical quality? As Dylan himself says ‘a poet is anyone who wants to call themselves a poet’. In hindsight, maybe we should follow the wise words of Take Me as I Am, and at the turn of his seventieth birthday, perhaps just leave it at that.
Fifty years ago, Latin and Greek learning was expected as part of a gentleman’s education. Harold Macmillan could claim that he played the Greece to America’s Rome and expect this to instantly resonate among the public. But as Britain’s imperial power declined, the Classics diminished too. They were seen as an outmoded relic, an embarrassing tool that had once been used to justify imperial conquer. Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, and while classical education has indeed diminished, there remains a stubborn core of Latin and Greek learning, though mostly confined to the well-to-do public schools. More to the point, classical literature and history is thriving. In the last decade, we’ve had the blockbusters Gladiator, Troy, 300 and Clash of The Titans. It speaks of a continuing public interest in the myths and legends of ancient civilisation, so much that pretty much any sporting match has someone yelling “Spartans! What is your profession?”
How have Classics survived then? How have they thrown off their stuffy straitjacket? The first, most obvious point is accessibility. Before the Second World War, no edition for the purpose of general reading existed. Anyone who’s ever used a literal translation to help with a set text will understand how a dry translation can utterly sap interest. E.V Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey, the first book published from the now-Juggernaut that is Penguin Classics, sold over three million copies. Since then, major translations of the Classics have placed readability and strong, direct language over literality. Impressive translations have been done following Rieu by Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, Robert Fagles and Christopher Logue and have been awarded prestigious awards far and wide, finding themselves on the wish-lists of critics as well as the general public. When we hear Aphrodite insulting another goddess’ “gobstopper nipples” it’s a far cry from Homeric epithets and hexameters but it captures the capriciousness and pettiness of the Olympic Gods in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in Mean Girls. Perfect for our modern age.
Instead of Cicero’s law speeches of the Roman Republic, or Demosthenes’ rhetoric about the democratic Athenian state, what are most popular at the moment are the Greek myths of fighting and derring-do. They capture not only us, surrounded in a world that increasingly seems unsafe, but also, as the semi-divine hero, epitomise the people we wish we could be. It is no accident that Antigone, the Greek tragic play about the conflict of identity between family and the state, has been staged multiple times in a Northern Ireland riven by sectarianism.
Far from being the one-dimensional symbols used in other mythologies, the characters articulate fully their despair of a world run seemingly by uncaring Gods. Oedipus finds out, horrifically, the limits of rational scientific enquiry can only extend so far. The Iliad shows the brutal inevitability of death in war; men do not die valiantly, shouting pithy one-liners, but screaming as their prestigious background and heroism is snuffed out, a feature more than relevant today as British soldiers die in wars they, like Homer’ s Thersites, question the value of.
Such is the breadth and depth of classical literature, a span of time that covers over a millennium, that many other problems faced by classical writers have their parallels in the modern age. Euripides’ Medea speaks of the problems of an immigrant, brought to a land by a husband who now disowns her, being alone. Petronius in the Satyricon shows the vacuous dinner party of the Roman noveau riche who’s bragging and insolence is a constant theme of satire even today (see Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party). Juvenal complains of a political class that has grown fat and corrupt; in a time where the expenses scandal still rumbles on, it is impossible not to feel some sort of similarity. Shorn of their imperial purposes, the classics still have much to offer a British culture, in their mix of hedonism, love, politics, satire, and above all, their versatility.