Danny Karlin

Danny Karlin, who teaches English at University College London, is the author of Browning’s Hatreds.

When the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu at last meets his idol, the great writer Bergotte, he gets a terrible shock: instead of the ‘white-haired, sweet Singer’ of his imagination, he sees ‘a young man, uncouth, short, thickset and myopic, with a red nose shaped like a snail-shell and a black goatee’. The fantasy Bergotte vanishes, but the caricature that...

Julie Otsuka’s novella When the Emperor Was Divine tells, in discontinuous sections and different narrative modes, the story of a Japanese-American family split up in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor – the father detained in military camps, the mother and two children interned in the Utah desert. The first part of the story – from Roosevelt’s issuing of...

At the very end of The Ring and the Book Browning delivers one of the most staggering mule-kicks ever meted out by an author to his readers. Bear in mind that the poem is more than 21,000 lines of blank verse – about twice the length of Paradise Lost. It was published in four monthly instalments, each containing three books of the poem, which appeared from November 1868 to February...

Recurring Women: Emily Dickinson

Danny Karlin, 24 August 2000

Publication – is the Auction Of the Mind of Man –


Editing Emily Dickinson’s poetry is a problem which continues to vex literary scholars and textual critics; meanwhile the publication, or dissemination, of Dickinson goes on apace. A trivial instance: the giant puppet of the ‘Belle of Amherst’, dressed in that distinctive ghost-white dress, which...


Danny Karlin, 7 January 1993

The history of punctuation is bound up with the most important shift in the theory of writing to have taken place in our culture. The written word began as a record of speech, a priority of voice over text which held sway in the ancient world and was literally (i.e. graphically) enforced. Reading meant reading aloud; texts were the libretti of performances so there was no need for elaborate pointing. Indeed there is no need even for the most minimal punctuation of all, word division. Classical texts were copied in scriptio continua (joined-up writing with a vengeance) so that the opening of, say, ‘Resolution and Independence’ would have looked like this (only more so, because there would have been quirks of orthography, such as contractions and elisions, to contend with as well):


Danny Karlin, 23 May 1991

Duncan Sprott’s The Clopton Hercules is an interesting book, powerfully written, and certainly (indeed, remorselessly) clever: but one-tracked, and self-satisfied. It takes a traditional target, the bizarrerie of upper middle-class Victorian sexual behaviour, and blasts away at it with satirical vigour and relish: but the more points are scored, the more pointless the exercise begins to seem. Here we have, on the sexual front, a priapic squire, his neurotic trapped wife and swarms of lower-class mistresses, his uncontrolled lusts and lunatic outbursts of violence; and on the social front, the squire’s over-reaching ambitions for his family, his ‘meteoric rise into respectability and affluence’, followed, of course, by his spectacular fall (linked, in Dickensian or Trollopian fashion, both to sexual profligacy and to speculation on the railways). The story is based on a true case, that of Charles Warde, and incorporates documentary passages from legal proceedings and newspapers: but its historical veracity is absolutely of no importance. What matters is the rhetorical twist which Sprott gives to the events, the modern standpoint from which he sardonically represents them.

Mary Swann’s Way

Danny Karlin, 27 September 1990

Jane Austen’s work seems, at first, hospitable to that literary parasite, pastiche: there isn’t much of it, so ersatz continuations or alternative narratives must satisfy the hunger for more; at the same time, the passionate familiarity which many Jane Austen readers have with her novels (demonstrated in Kipling’s wonderful story ‘The Janeites’) ensures a ready frame of reference for the imitator. But Jane Austen is, in fact, notoriously hard to ‘do’ convincingly. Joan Aiken (their names are horribly homophonic – could this have given her the idea?) is the author of Mansfield Revisited, which seems to have been successful enough to persuade her to try the market again. I have only ever read one such work, the continuation of Sanditon by ‘a Lady’ published some years ago; the bitter taste still lingers on, and I have a grudging sense that Jane Fairfax may not be quite as thin a dish of gruel as that. Instead it has an unappealing, mixed-up wrongness of flavour. It wants to be both like Jane Austen (to substitute for the real thing) and to revise Jane Austen (to be a real thing itself). Aiken disastrously fails to recognise that these are incompatible aims. She plunders Austen’s novel (sometimes quoting it verbatim or paraphrasing it closely, though ‘her’ Miss Bates or Mr Woodhouse or Emma have embalming-fluid in their literary veins); other characters derive weakly from other Austen novels (a brutal fop from Northanger Abbey, a kind-hearted mother from Sense and Sensibility) and one has strayed in wearing Mrs Jellyby’s clothes from Bleak House. At the same time, Aiken misreads Emma in crassly uninteresting ways. The plot turns on Emma’s fantasies about sexual relationships being mistaken, yet Aiken makes her daft suspicion of a liaison between Jane and Mr Dixon, formed at Weymouth, turn out to be true after all. This makes absolute nonsense of Jane’s relationship with Frank Churchill: the upright, pure-hearted, melancholy Jane is represented as choosing to enter into a clandestine engagement with a man she does not really love, and (even more ludicrously) is endowed with a romantic yearning for Mr Knightley worthy of Harriet Smith herself.’

Prolonging her absence

Danny Karlin, 8 March 1990

Henry Farr is – or, as it turns out, is not – the ‘Wimbledon Poisoner’ of Nigel Williams’s title. He is a Pooterish solicitor, middling and muddling his way through life; the plot concerns his repeated farcical failure to murder his awful wife, bumping off (he thinks) other innocent people instead. Then, as the plot unravels and a real poisoner shows his hand, Henry discovers that his wife is not so awful after all. Two kinds of decision mark the outset and outcome of this sequence of events, in the course of which Henry moves from tentative dimness to self-possession. In the book’s opening words, ‘Henry Farr did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife. It was simply that he could think of no other way of prolonging her absence from him indefinitely.’ But when the book closes, Henry faces this very prospect of indefinite togetherness with equanimity: ‘He thought about Elinor, and why he was still with her and what it would be like in the weeks and months and years to come … Killing her would have been a very stupid thing to have done. There was, he decided, as he turned over to address himself to sleep, quite a lot of mileage in her yet.’’

Write to me

Danny Karlin, 11 January 1990

‘My dear Lady Olliffe,’ Robert Browning wrote in March 1877:

Breathing on the British public

Danny Karlin, 31 August 1989

Nine years ago Herbert Tucker wrote an excellent first book, Browning’s Beginnings; like many first books it gave the impression of being a labour of love. Tucker’s second is a tremendous disappointment. It has all the inflated idea of itself that the title suggests. Browning’s Beginnings was short, keen and suggestive. It used Post-Structuralist approaches with verve and point. It was, in nothing but the good sense of the word, a modest book. Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism is not short, neither is it modest. It is the Big Book which American academics must ‘produce’. The brilliant close readings which distinguished the earlier book can still be found, but their context has altered: they emerge against the grain of the argument, not as part of it. Exit Young Tucker, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota; enter Tucker Senior, full Professor at the University of Virginia. And Tucker is robed in professorial garb from head to footnotes.

Diary: Million Dollar Bashers

Philip Horne and Danny Karlin, 22 June 1989

5 November 1988. In the Madison suite of Sacha’s Hotel in Manchester (motto: ‘Sacha’s Only Looks Expensive’), Paul Williams recalls an unrewarding encounter with Bob Dylan: ‘But I shook his hand which was … and this was at the beginning of the tour … and things changed significantly during the tour … he became more sociable, I’ve been talking to a number of people who did see him backstage later on in the tour, but, uh, his hand was very very soft, and it was … it’s hard to describe – I don’t mean limp, but … like a pillow, and the man himself … now, I didn’t look at him for very long, and I’m not very visually-oriented, but it’s … it was as though his head was very large. And it was just, you know … it was a little bit ghostlike … and, umm, and it was one of those … you know, I mean he was friendly but it was totally, like you’re not, you know, you’re not necessarily really there.’ The soft hand so hard to describe was extended to Williams earlier in the year. Williams had met Dylan in 1966 and 1980, and describes Dylan on these occassions as less big-headed and more ‘really there’, ready to ‘see him backstage’ and even dedicate the only live performance of ‘Caribbean Wind’ to him. Williams speaks for 90 minutes to a packed, and rapt, audience. He has been in the presence. He is the next best thing.

Antinomian Chic

Danny Karlin, 2 June 1988

Kathy Acker, wild and woolly avatar of William Burroughs, is also one of the Blasted Allegorists, contemporary American artists whose self-important and talent-free doodles about Life, the Universe and Everything are hyped by Brian Wallis in his Introduction, a piece of writing conceivably worse than the pieces it introduces:

Tennyson’s Text

Danny Karlin, 12 November 1987

Writing in 1842 to his friend Alfred Domett, who had emigrated to New Zealand, Robert Browning enclosed ‘Tennyson’s new vol. and, alas, the old with it – that is what he calls old’. Browning was referring to the two-volume Poems of 1842, whose first volume consisted of heavily revised versions of poems published in 1830 and 1832. ‘You will see, and groan!’ Browning went on.’

It ain’t him, babe

Danny Karlin, 5 February 1987

Portraits require sitters. Portraits of the famous, which often seem designed for target practice, require the sitters to be sitting ducks as well. But Bob Dylan can’t stand sitting. Try playing chess with him: ‘His knees bounce up against the table so much you think you are at a séance. The pieces keep jumping around the board. But he beats me every time.’ (Dave Van Ronk said that.) That must be how every interviewer feels – except, it seems, Robert Shelton. It’s 1966: Dylan is talking to Shelton, whose book about him he has agreed to countenance, if not to ‘authorise’. He says something about his relationship with Joan Baez, and then asks:’

To his closest friends, after Elizabeth Barrett’s death, Browning repeatedly spoke of the present as a country of exile. He wrote to Isa Blagden in July 1867 of taking ‘the three loveliest women in London’ to hear the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein (who ‘played divinely’):

Lee Van Cleef! I remember him in A Fistful of Dollars, where he had the respectable native occupation of bounty hunter, and a gun (with a natty set of attachments) which came in a flap-down case. Now he is ‘starring’ in a late-night series (Mondays on Central) so awful that the TV Times is ashamed to give any programme details except its title. It’s called The Master, and Mr Van Cleef plays a ninja warrior – an adept of the black Japanese arts of espionage and assassination – who tours America righting wrongs in the company of a fresh-faced American side-kid. Here, too, Mr Van Cleef is kitted out with deadly accessories – not firearms, but ninja weapons, from sword to spiked throwing wheels (for narrowly missing people and burying in door jambs), plus of course his feet and hands. The first sight of the game old boy dealing with a roomful of rednecks in bionic slow motion made me rub my eyes. But no. Spitting Image is on the night before.’

Post-War Memories

Danny Karlin, 19 December 1985

In my first year as a graduate student, I lived in a terrace house in York Street, Cambridge – a shabby, friendly part of town which had not yet been ‘improved’. (True, the previous owners had built an ‘extension’, but it was very ramshackle, and they left the main drain in the middle of the kitchen floor.) One of my next-door neighbours was Mrs A., a bent, frail, spirited woman, about seventy years old. Her house was heated by coal and lit by gas, because when she and her husband came back after World War Two, the landlord told them the whole street was going to be demolished in six months and it wasn’t worth putting in electricity. And after her husband died she could never be bothered.’

Diary: The Boss at Wembley

Danny Karlin, 1 August 1985

The Boss paused twice for reflection in the course of his last Wembley concert, on 6 July – twice in three and a half hours of an otherwise relentless exuberance. We all fell silent, gazing at the tiny figure holding the microphone, or at his huge video doubles, projected onto screens standing to either side of the forty-foot-high speakers. The sound, travelling across the arena, lagged fractionally behind the image, whose lips moved out of synch with the words we heard. The single, central figure, necessarily remote, could not quite sustain the illusion of intimate speech. But it was there if you listened with eyes closed. Personal sincerity, electronically amplified and directed at seventy thousand other persons, is hard to pull off, and hard to take whether pulled off or not. Bruce Springsteen, however, managed not to sound nauseatingly heartfelt. His voice lacks pretension, disclaims rhetoric and self-regard; he is, apparently, without design.

Diary: A Night at Greenham

Danny Karlin, 2 August 1984

The phone rings at 10.15. It’s Mary, from Campaign Atom: the Cruise convoy’s been sighted, fifteen miles from Greenham. It’s on its way back. Everyone on the network who wants to go down, go now.


Rival Brownings

23 May 2002

Danny Karlin writes: I am indeed both Danny and Daniel, but I don’t recognise either of my selves as brusquely dismissing the Broadview (not Penguin) or Oxford editions. I hope someone in the future dismisses my work by saying it ‘can hardly be bettered for clarity and informativeness’ and ‘richly enhances and illuminates’ its subject, as I say of Hawlin and Burnett’s...
Bernard Porter (LRB, 25 April) is wrong to state that Kipling referred to his first English school as the ‘House of Desolation’. He gave this name to the house in Southsea where his parents brought him from India and left him, at the age of five and in the company of his three-year-old sister; they returned to India and he did not see them again for nearly six years. This may have been...


9 May 1996

I hesitate to respond to Tom Paulin because what I have to say about the subject of Eliot and anti-semitism is personal and anecdotal. I own a copy of T.S. Eliot’s poems stamped with the crest of St Paul’s School and given to me as a school prize. At the time I went to St Paul’s there was a quota for the entry of Jewish pupils: the school’s Christian orientation (it was founded...

Jobs Wanted

22 February 1996

I have reached the end of Iain Sinclair’s piece (LRB, 22 February) and am lost in admiration. Here is a man who, in the dust-clouds of narcissism, malice, puffery and insider-speak which make up his back-handed (or rear-ended) tribute to Peter Ackroyd, has slipped away with £273-worth of the Tate Gallery’s collected edition of William Blake’s illuminated books. Have these been...


11 March 1993

Alasdair Gray’s dismissal of that well-known Victorian triple-headed verse-monster ‘Tennyson, Browning and Arnold’, as ‘hardly ever reflecting their nation’, is facile and dim, but I read it with resignation, just like the time before and the time before that; in Victorian poetry that’s just the way things go (LRB, 11 March). What’s harder to swallow is this:...

Browning and Modernism

10 October 1991

In his review of the first two volumes of our edition of Browning (LRB, 10 October), Donald Davie objects to our description of Sordello as a poem ‘written in heroic couplets’. The description is undoubtedly inadequate. But intentionally so: our point (as the context makes clear) is that Sordello eludes all but a minimalist categorisation in terms of genre. Hence by ‘heroic couplet’...

Duff Poetry

11 October 1990

The trouble with Pitt-Kethley’s poems isThey’re written in a line that jogs alongWith the required amount of syllablesLike those I’m writing without effort soThat every line comes plunking to an end:De dum de dum de dum de dum de dumUntil the ear aches to the tramping soundOf flat-footed Fiona’s soulless feet.She lacks the ghost of anything resemblingTalent for verse. The fact...


9 July 1987

SIR: There is a parasite multiplying in the bowels of your organ. How it took hold I cannot remember – perhaps I was not yet born. This parasite converts intellectual debate into a glutinous compound of prejudice and abuse. It excretes intolerable boredom. The host/victim eventually suffers death by column inches. The name of this parasite is ‘Anti-Anti-Racism’. A correspondectomy...

Ventriloquism: Dear Old Khayyám

Marina Warner, 9 April 2009

Edward FitzGerald transfused his own life, even as he deemed it a paltry thing, into the persona of Omar Khayyám, who would lift it from that paltriness and transfigure him. He was able to formulate...

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I’ve been comparing Daniel Karlin’s anthology here and there with other anthologies of English verse of the same period (Victoria’s reign 1837-1901) and of the 19th century as a...

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When in Rom

John Sutherland, 9 June 1994

Ask what has been the single greatest influence on literary research since the Sixties and the answer might be the Xerox machine, the jumbo jet or Jacques Derrida. Ask what will transform...

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Browning and Modernism

Donald Davie, 10 October 1991

Browning is in high favour once again, or promises to be. Has not A.S. Byatt, CBE, declared him ‘one of the very greatest English poets’? In a switch to fighting talk, she adds that...

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