Barbara Everett

Barbara Everett is a retired fellow of Somerville College, Oxford.

Four Poems

Barbara Everett, 13 September 2018


A picture book of Churches makes clear that the one Stone for the floor is

A broken Peter. Overhead vacuity Lifts up the great dome.

Pecunia non olet

Vespasian taxed Sewage, laughed at his son’s fuss – ‘Money doesn’t smell’.

It’s true. Human words And actions can smell worse than Money’s likely to.

In All Saints

Up in the roof...

Six Poems

Barbara Everett, 4 May 2017

The Letter

He stooped to assess The scrap of paper drenched with Rain and dried by wind,

An ending: ‘One can Love anything, so how much Better it was you.’


While they all went off To France and to Italy She stayed on the moon,

Ankled in white dust, Walking down the craters and Sleeping by earth light.


Shakespeare looked in the Glass and saw a...

Saint Shakespeare

Barbara Everett, 19 August 2010

Late 16th-century England had no very great portrait painters, but at least one of its dramatists created a gallery of images – principally through his characters – at once brilliant and hard to forget. Hamlet and Lear can haunt the mind in a way that eclipses even the magnificent faces of Dürer and Titian. Shakespeare in fact embodies in his work a great change in...

If we speak of ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, we mean a collection with this name first published in 1609, when Shakespeare was 45 and most of his plays had been staged; he died only seven years later. The 1609 text is the only authentic source for all the editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets published since. So much is problematic about this first edition that it is best to...

Jacobean England had its own royal catastrophe when, in 1612, the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, died of typhoid at the age of 18. It even had its lost princess when, in the next year, his sister Elizabeth, afterwards known as the Queen of Hearts, married Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, and disappeared into a long and fairly inglorious future. Both events linger on in the shadowy...

A Lethal Fall: Larkin and Chandler

Barbara Everett, 11 May 2006

Philip Larkin gave the name High Windows to what proved to be his last collection of verse (published in 1974, 11 years before he died). The phrase had been used as the title of one of the poems included, and also occurs at the poem’s end:

the thought of high windows: The sun-comprehending glass, And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.


Whirligig: Thinking about Hamlet

Barbara Everett, 2 September 2004

‘Hamlet’ is perhaps the most popular literary work ever put down on paper. This does not necessarily make it any easier to see clearly, or to come to terms with intellectually. This is especially so in a period when scholars say that there is no Hamlet, clear or not: there are only the incompatible early editions and the abundance of theatre productions ever since. I think myself...

Most modern editions of The Winter’s Tale explain – and rightly – that its title is an Elizabethan phrase indicating scepticism, the equivalent to our ‘romantic nonsense’. The work is underwriting its own lightness, its randomness. But not without irony; for the title has a further dimension. It is oddly literal: the play begins in winter. (Even Romance times and...

Alphabeted: Coleridge the Modernist

Barbara Everett, 7 August 2003

“This extremely able but unhappy, unlucky and probably neurotic man experienced grinding misery for a good deal of his life, but when he began to be fully adult, in his middle to late twenties, something special happened. He was old enough to take a breath and look at his life, at how it was and how it was probably going to stay; but also young enough, particularly when surrounded by the bustling confident egoism of the Wordsworth household, to do what Yeats called taking ‘a great kick at human misery’, making it fertile, understanding it and mastering it.”

About fifty or sixty years ago, at the end of a century or more of unenthusiasm, Measure for Measure came into its own. A largely moral or metaphysical explanation of its quality helped it to enjoy, like the uncles in Larkin’s wedding-poem, ‘success so huge and wholly farcical’. That critical moment has passed, like the Modernism which contributed to it. Measure for Measure...

This essay, in an earlier version, given as a paper at the conference on ‘Something We Have that They Don’t: Anglo-American Poetic Relations since the War’, organised by Mark Ford and Steve Clark under the aegis of the University of London.

Few 20th-century events, even in literary history alone, were at once important and relatively harmless. One was the rise and fall of...

Dryden of course neither wrote nor adapted a Hamlet. But sometimes negatives, or questions, can say as much as positives. And Dryden is perhaps an odder, a more involved figure than might be surmised from his enormous productivity – from his energy, his directness, his mass and variety of achievement. This first of our great professional poets may have understood very fully the oxymoron...

Hard Romance

Barbara Everett, 8 February 1996

‘The Janeites’ must be Kipling’s least popular story (though there is competition). Written in 1924 and published in Debits and Credits two years later, it is an abrupt, allusive yarn about a group of English officers and men in northern France near the end of the First World War; and it is narrated by one of them, a large working-class innocent called Humberstall, in peacetime a hairdresser. An alcoholic young lieutenant, Macklin, arrives in the battery and starts up a Jane Austen Society. Its effects embrace even the bewildered Humberstall – they save his life. The battery is wiped out by enemy action. Humberstall staggers shell-shocked away, muttering about Miss Bates, and finds the name acts like a password on a bookish senior nurse, who hauls him aboard a packed hospital train. Looking back years later, the still dazed narrator remembers his time as a Janeite as the happiest of his life.’

Kipling’s Lightning-Flash

Barbara Everett, 10 January 1991

Few discussions of literary obscurity fail to come to a climax with a story written by Kipling in the early l900s, ‘Mrs Bathurst’. Conversely, most general critical treatments of the writer sooner or later brace themselves to try to explain what is going on in it. Excellent work has emerged from the process – Kipling can bring the best out of the good critic, and possibly the worst out of the bad. I don’t, however, want to tackle the question of obscurity precisely in this interpretative way. I should like to suggest rather that the particular difficulties and originalities of this dark tale can (paradoxically) throw light on to what was happening to fiction in England in the 1890s and after: they can even tell us something about why and how the short story emerges from the slow dissolution of the Victorian novel.’

The Fatness of Falstaff

Barbara Everett, 16 August 1990

One day early in the 1590s a clown came onto a London stage, holding a piece of string. At the end of the piece of string was a dog. The dog, possibly the first on the Elizabethan stage, I want to leave where it is for a moment. My main subject isn’t Launce and his dog (for this is, of course, the first entry of the clown in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), but the much more complicated character who, charged by the Lord Chief Justice with having led astray the Prince of Wales, answers: ‘The young Prince hath misled me. I am the Fellow with the great belly, and he my Dogge.’ No one now quite follows this joke, which may be an airy reference (to distract attention) to the Man in the Moon. What is more interesting than Falstaff’s ancient joke is his capacity to make us listen to him while he tells it. We concentrate.

Being all right, and being wrong

Barbara Everett, 12 July 1990

Men of different generations and presumably social worlds, Anthony Powell and Craig Raine aren’t much alike as writers. But the novelist’s Miscellaneous Verdicts and the poet’s Haydn and the Valve Trumpet are both very good, solid selections of occasional writing. The five hundred pages to which they both run are mainly literary journalism, with some illuminating essays on the social-historical from Powell, and vivid side-glances at painters and painting from Raine. With all their differences, the two writers have one thing in common. Both dislike most kinds of academic literary criticism. And this antipathy can’t be disentangled from the effective virtues of their work.


Barbara Everett, 10 November 1988

One day a long while ago Philip Larkin dropped a remark in passing about the difficulties of his current private life. He made it in the form of a jokey generalisation about the impossibility of relations between men and women, and added that the women ought really to marry each other, but that would be wrong, wouldn’t it? I forgot the remark for over thirty years until I bumped into it as an observation by one of the characters in Kingsley Amis’s latest novel, Difficulties with girls. It may not have been the same remark, of course: but since Amis was Larkin’s close friend, and Larkin a great letter-writer, and since the words on the page served suddenly to bring back a long-past occasion, it seems possible that a series of sentences has survived.


Barbara Everett, 31 March 1988

BBC Radio has started a pleasant practice of filling the Christmas season with murder plays, mostly dramatised detective stories from the classic English phase of the 1920s and 1930s. This joining of the festive with the lethal provokes thought. There may well be some long line in English culture that links the Christmas visit to The Mousetrap with a point at least as far back as that splendid moment in Medieval literature when the Green Knight, his head cut off, stoops to pick up the rolling object, and rides out of Arthur’s Christmas Court with the head lifted high and turned in the hand to smile genially here and there at the gathered knights and ladies as he goes. ‘A sad tale’s best for winter.’ If there is such a tradition of smiling violence, clearly there must be a place in it for the original ‘Mousetrap’ itself, Shakespeare’s tragedy of court life. Indeed, as the work of the most formally inventive of all literary geniuses, Hamlet could even be called – particularly since its presumed Kydian predecessor is lost – the first ever detective story or civilised thriller. The drama critic James Agate, who once savagely described Donald Wolfit’s Hamlet as a private detective watching the jewels at the Claudius-Gertrude wedding feast, may have said more than he knew.


Barbara Everett, 2 April 1987

Literary friendships (Sidney and Greville, Pope and Swift, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound) have interest for the critic as well as the biographer. They show how unlike temperaments of near-equivalent talent may be drawn together by unanimity of literary principle. This unanimity should therefore be worth looking into, especially in the case of work like Philip Larkin’s, always more reserved and elusive than it seems. I want to consider his writing in juxtaposition with that of Kingsley Amis, close friend of the poet’s for over forty years; and to begin with Amis’s recent Booker Prize-winning novel. The element of apparent circuitousness in this approach to Larkin is perhaps excused by the nature of friendship itself: both persons matter, as Montaigne implied in his well-known explanation of friendship, ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’ Amis’s remarkable individuality may be defined so as to clarify, however indirectly, Larkin’s great and always in some sense reticent achievement.

Mrs Shakespeare

Barbara Everett, 18 December 1986

Not many stories about Shakespeare that are either credible or interesting survived the poet: but one can be found in an additional note to Aubrey’s Brief Lives, which recalls him as ‘the more to be admired q[uia] he was not a company keeper, lived in Shoreditch, wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’ This sounds true in more than one way; perhaps Shakespeare did suffer from headaches as well as high principles and good manners. But what makes the anecdote memorable is that it so nicely sums up a writer’s struggle against another kind of takeover bid: that made by the ‘Society’ of readers and of criticism. He needs to be read, but read on his own terms. Shakespeare said in the Sonnets: ‘Noe, I am that I am.’


Barbara Everett, 17 October 1985

Even Swift, who liked to think he was half author of the Dunciad, had trouble with its allusions and wrote grumblingly to warn Pope that twenty miles from London ‘nobody understands hints, initial letters, or town facts and passages.’ The delighted poet seized his chance and added to his poem for its 1729 ‘Variorum’ edition those profuse helpful footnotes which make the text more confusing than before. Pope glosses, for instance, the first occurrence of the name of the poem’s first hero, called in it ‘Tibbald’ though we would now write the name of the Shakespearian scholar in question ‘Theobald’; and the poet’s note mentions that Tibbald’s name was in fact always pronounced so, though written as Theobald. Working on the poem rather more than two hundred years after Pope, the distinguished editor of the Twickenham Dunciad, James Sutherland, declined to take the poet at his word, and added a note on the annotation explaining that the name ‘really was pronounced’ Theobald. Presumably following this lead, an equally distinguished Popian, Maynard Mack, has now in his long-awaited and richly-informative new Life of Pope found a corner in which to extend this editorial scepticism into his own full-blown critical observation: ‘Even the name of the hero dunce, Lewis Theobald, though printed out in full, was “translated” (like Bottom wearing the ass’s head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) into a foolish tumble of syllables rhyming with “ribald”.’ Elsewhere in the Life, Professor Mack makes the point that the sheer fictiveness of Timon’s villa in the ‘Epistle to Burlington’ ‘will be evident to those who have travelled much among English country houses’. It doesn’t seem irrelevant therefore to point out that those who travel much by bus in Holborn are likely to hear the conductors, not all of whom can have read the Dunciad, calling ‘Theobald’s Road’, ‘Tibbles Road’.

Eliot at smokefall

Barbara Everett, 24 January 1985

Two events of the last year have attracted a lot of notice. One is the production of Michael Hastings’s play, Tom and Viv, and the other the publication of Peter Ackroyd’s biography, T.S. Eliot. They of course share a subject, the poet himself. But this choice of subject, the life of the writer with perhaps the biggest public image of any in our time, suggests something else they have in common. These two works are in one way more alike than might be expected from the ‘creative’ or ‘fictional’ mode of the one, and the ‘critical’ or ‘factual’ mode of the other; and what brings them together, apart from some confusion of these categories, is their similar capacity to throw light on what is wrong with the present public image of the literary.

The Pleasures of Poverty

Barbara Everett, 6 September 1984

The Barbara Pym story is possibly better-known than any of her novels, widely though these are now read. During the decade after 1950 she brought out half a dozen books, which were well received and found a steady if small reading public. But in 1963 her publisher, Cape, turned down her new novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, and she stayed unpublished until 1977. In that year, two contributors to a Times Literary Supplement survey, Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, spoke so highly of her work as to effect a change in this situation. Three more novels by Barbara Pym were published, this time by Macmillan, who finally added to them in 1982 – two years after the writer had herself died – the book originally rejected by Cape. Meanwhile, notice excited by the TLS survey of 1977 created new readers and admirers of Barbara Pym, and her reputation continues to grow; she is the subject of academic theses in America.

Somebody reading

Barbara Everett, 21 June 1984

Perhaps as a result of the lingering Symbolist inheritance, the aesthetic notion of most potency at present is the idea that the work of art is in some sense about itself. Even in the fine arts, apparently most in love with the visible world, the great painter will be said to paint himself in every portrait. The exquisite old lady reading in a pool of light holds the stillness of Rembrandt himself as he paints, and Velasquez looks back at us through the eyes of a court dwarf. This self-involvement may all the more readily be found in literature since most poets tend to be experts on themselves. Outgoing and unegoistic as he was, Keats shows himself in his letters to be endlessly articulate on himself and his writing, and the poems, too, can be read as something like works of criticism. Many critics see ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ as the earliest evidence of Keats’s genius, and the sonnet treats with Renaissance magnificence that peculiarly modern subject, the poet as reader of poetry. Or again, the remarkable fragment which, only two and a half years after the sonnet, marked the beginning of Keats’s last and ‘living year’, ‘The Eve of St Mark’, could easily be re-titled ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman Reading’: so suggestively inward and original is its image of a young person wholly absorbed in a poem, one chilly spring evening in a small country town, where she sits by the window in an old house trying to catch the dying light

Browning Versions

Barbara Everett, 4 August 1983

James Thurber’s best-known cartoon has an impassive little man introducing his spouse to a dazed friend with ‘That’s My First Wife Up There, and This Is the Present Mrs Harris.’ The first Mrs Harris seems to be crouched on all fours on the top of a very high (glazed) bookcase, just behind the second Mrs Harris. This image has found an appreciative audience even among those not particularly interested in American humour of the 1930s. In part, this large appeal probably derives from a real social sophistication concealed in the innocence of the drawing. The linguistically prim social formula of the caption underwrites the wild surprise both of the occasion in itself and of its medium, Thurber’s own very peculiar and vestigial draughtsmanship; together they cover the way in which our formulaic social manners have to contend with the extreme ad hoc-ness of experience – a first wife on the bookcase, crouched to spring, or embalmed, or perhaps just teasing.–

Larkin and Us

Barbara Everett, 4 November 1982

‘What days for?’ asks a poem in The Whitsun Weddings. It’s a good opening line, with that abruptness and immediacy most Larkin openings have. And it’s a good question, making it plain – among other things – that living is not really what poems do: they only chart the results of asking questions like these, bringing

Poetry and Christianity

Barbara Everett, 4 February 1982

‘Water-Music’ makes in itself a fine concept, through the delicate difference of its components, water being transparent though sometimes audible, music being always audible and always transparent; together they would make a good Symbolist image for religious art, if only Symbolism had believed in religion. But the thing the concept is based on is not now experienced much in reality. Or, if it is experienced, it hardly lives up to the concept: madrigals I heard once on the river at Oxford by night involved merely damp, and mosquitoes, and an occasion all innocent pretentiousness. And yet a good many people feel, and are surely right to go on feeling, that they know all about water-music, simply because of Handel. It is surprising how much of ordinary life turns out to be purely conceptual like this – in modern society, at any rate; and modernity probably started with the making of the Lascaux cave-paintings, themselves a kind of visual water-music. We think we know things, when what we really know is the inside of the head, and live by theories untested for generations and even for centuries. The realists tend to be, not the extroverts and pragmatists, who are merely good at converting other people to their fantasies, but a few experts in consciousness who have got to know the hard way where the limits of their theories lie.

Auden Askew

Barbara Everett, 19 November 1981

There is an academic myth (vaguely Victorian in feeling but probably, like most Victorian principles, dating back a half-century earlier) that scholars study facts whereas critics make it all up out of their own heads. It afflicts English studies as it does most others, and had a recent airing in John Carey’s inaugural lecture at Oxford which proposed that scholars handle texts whereas critics only vandalise them by reading them. This double and triple illusion usefully affords occasion for simple restatements: that, for instance, to read at all is in itself a creative and interpretative act, an evidence of mind which it dignifies human beings to perform; that scholars and critics alike read inventively, to some extent knowing what they are looking for and to some extent finding it; that there is no such thing as a ‘text’, and if there were it would degrade literature to be treated as one – and there was probably no such thing as a fact, either, until some human being invented it. The only difference is that some people are much better readers than others, whether of books or of reality, better in the sense of ‘truer’, more accurate and more revealing: and may well be helped to be so by being rid of the illusion that as ‘scholars’ they have some easy, advantaged road to the truth.

Henry James and Romance

Barbara Everett, 18 June 1981

Edith Wharton once asked Henry James why it was that his novels so curiously lacked real life. James’s private name for her was the ‘Angel of Devastation’, and the fact that she not only perpetrated this remark but went on to record it expressionlessly in her memoirs shows just what he meant. It might be said that by then James had got used to the situation anyway, since for the previous thirty years much the same question had been asked by that large majority of the late-Victorian reading public who simply refused to read his books: after the last mild success of The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, James experienced half a lifetime of small and dwindling sales, which culminated, in the case of the New York Collected Edition, in total failure. Edith made thousands. But of course both she and the contemporary reading public had a point. There is, after all, only a limited range of actuality in Henry James’s novels: the two great driving forces of human existence, financial pressure and physical need, are hardly more than alluded to in them. If the business of novels was only to reflect ‘real life’, what James could offer would be severely limited. But as it happens, this is not what novels do: like every other form of art, they exist to express reality. It remains a permanent marvel of James’s fiction that the writer seems to know so much about reality, while always leaving us wondering just how much he knows about real life.


Barbara Everett, 7 May 1981

Donald Davie has proposed that Eliot’s Quartets are in some sense a work of self-parody, with ‘The Dry Salvages’ in structure and style parodistic of the quartets that preceded it. This proposal took off from an idea of Hugh Kenner’s, and any theory with two such exceptionally able sponsors needs treating with respect. The element of likelihood in this one derives from the way it locates Eliot’s work within that ‘Age of Criticism’ which Modernism helped to inaugurate. A modernistic poem will interrogate itself: hence the continual ironic critique within Eliot’s verse of the ‘shabby equipment always deteriorating’. But if a poem is to be successful there must be a limit to the amount of self-consciousness it can safely contain. The Cretan tells us that ‘All Cretans are liars’: is he lying or telling the truth? The nature of language itself prevents us from communicating certain general propositions about ourselves to other people. So, if a poem works it’s likely to be about something other than the self saying it. Because the Quartets do work, all Eliot’s gestures of self-awareness are in the end less important than what in part they serve as a nervously courteous smoke-screen for: the burden of naked and extreme experience which these poems have to express. This is what gives them their peculiar, surprising weight and permanently distinguishes their tenuousness from vacuity.

Poetry and Soda

Barbara Everett, 5 February 1981

Anthologies are coming from the publishers with the speed of Verey lights from a sinking ship. What could he better: six hundred pages of other men’s flowers, offering relief from what Henry James is supposed on his death-bed to have attributed his wearing-out to – ‘the labour of discrimination’? But the recent profusion does leave room to reflect that some anthologies are better than other anthologies, and that some subjects are better suited than other subjects to anthologies, and that some subjects are not good subjects anyway – just as anthologies are not necessarily the best form of bookmaking. Poems have as obstinate a life of their own as hamsters or baby pythons, and may profit as little from being gift-wrapped. Whoever edits, say, a gathering of Satirical Verse is going to have to fight the fact that Absalom and Achitophel or the Dunciad don’t get better by being bound up with a few hundred other satires; and since they need the authority of their full length as well as demanding circumambient space, excerpted bits don’t read at all well. Similarly, a collection devoted to that delightful and now very fashionable subject, English topography (or ‘Poems and Places’), has to confront the fact that because poems are mental events, remarkably few are really topographical at all: once past ‘Tintern Abbey’, the anthologist will have trouble finding other good poems he likes that could truthfully be said to do more than mention localities.


Cold Feet

22 July 1993

I much admired the poise and reasonableness of Professor Frank Kermode’s review of books by and about William Empson (LRB, 22 July). These gifts, though, can bring with them special assumptions. Kermode is generous, speaking of Empson as a great critic, if with strong reservations, and I happen to agree with this estimate. But the discussion involves terms that worry me.Empson’s general...

Seeing my etchings

12 July 1990

Craig Raine puts forward (Letters, 26 July) a new interpretation of the etching by Rembrandt which has been traditionally known as Joseph Telling his Dreams. I am glad that, in reply to my review, he has chosen to stick to his guns. Having looked at Rembrandt’s etching again – not only in the detail given on the book-jacket but in its complete form – I can’t see eye to eye with...

Old Spellings

18 December 1986

Barbara Everett writes: It is desirable to have good modern – i.e. modernised – texts of all the older writers. But scholars and critics, especially when concerned with textual points and with cruces of meaning, in works as difficult as Shakespeare’s can be, will find it necessary to study the earliest printed texts (or, where extant, the manuscripts) in order to form their independent...

Eliot at Smokefall

24 January 1985

SIR: Since this correspondence started off from Peter Ackroyd’s complaint that Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ is not on any map, Charles Plouviez’s complaint that I can’t read a map has a certain almost pleasing familiarity. Closed circles by definition are hard to break out of; Mr Plouviez may not be convinced by having his mistake proved to him. It does, however,...

Browning Versions

4 August 1983

Barbara Everett writes: Park Honan’s idea of an idea is not mine. I was writing on Browning, and I mentioned recent editions – not just of Browning but of other poets – only to call attention to them. Textual criticism has its place, and the merits of the new Oxford Browning will no doubt be assessed in the academic journals. Mr Honan is wrong to say that I implied that the new Oxford...

Talking about Shakespeare

Frank Kermode, 28 September 1989

Barbara Everett’s book consists of her four Northcliffe Lectures, given at University College London in 1988, on Hamlet and the other ‘major’ tragedies, together with a number...

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Everett’s English Poets

Frank Kermode, 22 January 1987

Faced with the average book of modern literary criticism, the reviewer may wisely resolve to say nothing about the author’s skills as a writer of prose. If they ever existed, they would...

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