John Kerrigan

John Kerrigan is writing a book about modern poetry.

Slavery and Revenge

John Kerrigan, 22 October 2020

In​ Mrs Flanigan’s Antigua and the Antiguans, published in 1844, we are told about a plantation overseer who acted against pilfering slaves. His rigour

caused him to be disliked, and determined one among them, more heartless, perhaps, than the rest, to undertake his destruction. On Christmas day, Mr Brown rode to … a neighbouring estate, and upon his return in the evening...

In​ the first book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, the heroine remembers her childhood. Orphaned in Italy and educated by her aunt in an English country house, she was given pious tracts to read, learned some algebra and embroidered a shepherdess who was

        lovelorn with pink eyes To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;...

Last summer, the National Theatre put on Timon of Athens as a play about the credit crunch. Simon Russell Beale was the glossy, well-fed protagonist, a wealthy patron of the arts and liberal dispenser of gifts, who plunges into misanthropy when he can borrow no more and his friends reject him. The production was stylishly contemporary, set in the expensive interiors of Mayfair and Canary...

The Ticking Fear: Louis MacNeice

John Kerrigan, 7 February 2008

As Louis MacNeice lay dying in 1963, his last major work, a radio play called Persons from Porlock, was broadcast by the BBC. It is about a painter called Hank, who starts well in the 1930s, but whose development, as MacNeice explains in a note, ‘is interrupted by the war . . . Subsequent interruptions and frustrations include those occasioned by the lure of commercial art, by...

Old, Old, Old, Old, Old: Late Yeats

John Kerrigan, 3 March 2005

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 1938. An old pedlar and his young son stand on a moonlit stage bare but for the ruins of a great house and a leafless tree. The Old Man declares that the house is still inhabited, by the ghost of his mother, heir to the estate, who brought destruction on it when she married his low-born, wastrel father. A light comes on in a shattered window. It is the spirit of the...

No one minds lending a friend an egg-whisk, but that’s my book, many people insidiously feel, when someone borrows a well-thumbed text (a text in which the reader has palpably invested their emotions), marks it, and makes it their own.

Hand and Foot: Seamus Heaney

John Kerrigan, 27 May 1999

When Seamus Heaney left Belfast in 1972, to work as a freelance writer in the relative safety of the Republic, Northern Ireland was a war zone. Internment and Bloody Sunday had recruited so many to the Provisional IRA that Civil Rights marches had given way to carbombs. While Heaney in County Wicklow wrote the poems that would go into North, common ground was eroded. Moderates still hoped for power-sharing, but the prospects for compromise were damaged in February 1973, when the Loyalist Association of Workers called a general strike – flexing the industrial muscle which would later destroy the Sunningdale Agreement.

When Eyesight is Fully Industrialised

John Kerrigan, 16 October 1997

Plunging in free-fall, a parachutist just out of an aeroplane sees the Earth spread out before him with the steadiness of a map. As his eyes resolve the detail, however, at about 600 metres, the ground seems to rush towards him, then split apart with dizzying speed: ‘The apparent diameter of objects increases faster and faster and you suddenly have the feeling you are not seeing them getting closer but seeing them move apart suddenly, as though the ground were splitting open.’

Birth of a Náison

John Kerrigan, 5 June 1997

John Major’s vision of Britain is history by now: a unitary state north and south of the Tweed, secured by consent, subject to one monarch and funded by a non-tartan tax system. When Major first published his views, however, in the punningly titled Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521), his innovativeness upset fellow Scots. It was one thing for a North Berwick-born philosopher to refute the medieval legend which derived English claims to rule in Scotland from the overlordship of a Trojan called Brut; it was another for him to challenge the myth which traced Scottish independence back to an ancient Greek prince called Gathelus. Defeated at the Battle of Flodden, and fearful of Tudor encroachments, the Scottish élite resisted both Major’s historiography and his proposal that royal dynasties on the island should intermarry to unite ‘Greater Britain’. Not until 1603, when James VI succeeded to the English throne, would talk of union become orthodox.

Rooting for Birmingham

John Kerrigan, 2 January 1997

Since the publication of Roy Fisher’s sequence City, in 1961, his work has been praised by fellow poets, but his refusal to strike marketable postures, during a period in which reaching an audience has increasingly depended on a poet’s willingness to do so, has kept him relatively unknown. This neglect is the more understandable given Fisher’s publication history. Many of his early pieces were circulated in fugitive pamphlets. Like the Collected Poems of 1968, the superbly crafted Matrix (1971) was published by Fulcrum Press – a by-word, in those Movement-dominated times, for what was taken to be wayward experimentalism. Only with The Thing about Joe Sullivan (1978), published by Carcanet, and two OUP editions of his collected poems (1980 and 1988), did Fisher turn to houses equipped to reach ‘mainstream’ readers. Now he has gone the way of all poets and taken his selected works to Bloodaxe. It is to be hoped that The Dow Low Drop will not be lost in the sheer bulk of that outfit’s throughput – though it would somehow be typical of Fisher if his gesture towards a popular readership proved yet another route to self-effacement.’


John Kerrigan, 18 July 1996

In Irish poetry, from Ó Rathaille to the rebel songs, a paradigmatic encounter recurs. Up on a hill, or down by the glenside, the poet meets a woman who celebrates Ireland’s pastand speaks of national redemption. This emblematic figure, often glimpsed in a vision or ‘aisling’, can be a glamorous maiden awaiting her Stuart prince, but she also appears as the ‘poor old woman’ of the patriotic ballads. Whether praising the sacrifices of ‘the bold Fenian men’ or complaining (after 1921) of the bondage which shackles one of her ‘four green fields’, this plangent yet bloodthirsty crone is as worn a cultural token as those related feminine stereotypes, Dark Rosaleen and Cathleen Ní Houlihan. In the rapidly modernising Ireland of satellite TV and legalised divorce, she might seem an exhausted figment. Remarkably, however, the Shan Van Vocht keeps cropping up in verse, as though poets hoped that renewed encounters could release the energies still locked in archaic nationalism, and clarify relations between patriotic sentiment and sexual politics.


John Kerrigan, 13 October 1988

August is the cruellest month, breeding tailbacks on the Dover Road and logjams in every departure lounge. Travel reverts to travail, stirring dull roots in trepalium – that classical ‘instrument or engine of torture’ now known as the ‘chartered jet’ or ‘transcontinental sleeper’. Driven by some collective urge, we flock abroad and return two weeks later exhausted and ready for a holiday. Why post-industrial man should display such ritualised migratory behaviour already seems mysterious. And future archaeologists will find our tourist networks as baffling as the Songlines which stretch across aboriginal Australia. At which point, they should turn to the poets. For just as the Songlines are, to use Bruce Chatwin’s image, ‘a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every “episode” [is] readable’, so the quick and shallow tracks of tourism retrace our oldest myths, revisiting ancient holy sites, seeking out a palm-fringed paradise, ploughing in hydrofoils across the wine-dark Aegean.’


John Kerrigan, 2 April 1987

Professor Vendler’s soul is in peril. Reviewing Black American broadsides in 1974, she found it ‘sinful that anthologies and Collected Works should betray the poems they print by jamming them together and running them into one another.’ Yet here is her Faber Book, a self-confessed anthology which, attempting to present 35 poets ‘whole’, aspires to be a collection of Collecteds. Probably we should leave the editor alone with her conscience and just be grateful to have the poems. But a hostile finger must be pointed at the publishers, who have produced a tome so stoutly handsome that it’s hard to tear the pages out to read the texts as broadsides. An unsewn paperback would ease this problem.

Keeping the show on the road

John Kerrigan, 6 November 1986

‘The Professor was not always right,’ declared H.D. after analysis in Vienna. Her judgment seems rather generous. Reading her Tribute to Freud, one can’t ignore the emotional and interpretative coercion that went on at 19 Berggasse under the name of science. To an alarming degree, theory preempted argument. H.D. had been abandoned by her husband, Richard Aldington, for another woman, during a difficult pregnancy in which mother and child seemed doomed; her love affair with the feminist Bryher was fraught; writing set up its own strains: but Freud already knew, amid this welter of anxieties, what really worried the patient. Had he not just shown, in the lecture on ‘Femininity’ (1933), that women are driven by a penis-envy which may be sublimated into some vague desire for intellectual achievement but which can only be allayed by bearing a child, preferably male, as phallus? If H.D. dreamt of a princess stepping down towards water, to find and protect a baby, while she stood by as witness, did this not demonstrate the patient’s longing to possess the penis? Never mind the trauma of childbirth. Did it not recall the finding among bullrushes of that founder who had fascinated Freud since his 1914 essay on Michelangelo’s Moses? Well of course this hadn’t occurred to H.D. Freud, after all, had thought harder than she had about totemic leaders with rebellious followers – like Adler and Jung – and he, not the patient, was gestating Moses and Monotheism. In short, it’s hard to know where to look when H.D. regrets the death of Freud’s disciple, Van der Leeuw, and the master replies: ‘You have come to take his place.’ Someone had to; the succession needed securing; naturally, ‘the Professor insisted I myself wanted to be Moses … a boy … a hero.’’

Diary: Lost Shakespeare

John Kerrigan, 6 February 1986

Shakespeare country, and rain. In deepest Warwickshire, when light goes out of the day at three, there’s nothing to do but bring in the dogs and build a huge fire and try for the nth time to believe that ‘Shall I die?’ might be by the Bard. To get the ambience right, I fill a pewter mug with ale. A taper winks in the timbered hall. Even so, the poem seems very bad. Intoned, it sounds banal; sung, it simply upsets the cat. Something goes wrong in stanza two. Either the piece runs into sand, or the illusion slips, but I can never reach

Brave as hell

John Kerrigan, 21 June 1984

In 1964, the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, two very different books appeared. Anthony Burgess’s tribute to the poet, Nothing Like the Sun, was a boisterous biographical novel full of sugared sack and bawdry, with sombre undertones of decay. Taking literally the references in Shakespeare’s sonnets to a mistress ‘black as hell’, Burgess made the Dark Lady of his story a voluptuous East Indian who, after seducing the dramatist, inspired the tragic plays of his maturity by giving him a dose of syphilis. A.L. Rowse, meanwhile, edited the sonnets themselves. Already the author of a large-scale life of the poet, and, as a historian, well-placed to deal with at least one aspect of the verse, Rowse produced a volume that was ultimately unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, his edition was recognisably a work of scholarship, displaying some of the prudence looked for in the form. Unlike Burgess, for instance, Rowse refused to identify or sketch a Dark Lady, because he thought the evidence insufficient. The last two decades have changed all that. While Burgess has pursued the spirit of Shakespeare through a film-script, a popular biography and, now, an Enderby novel – feigning, in the process, notable images of the poet – Dr Rowse has drifted into fantasy. Having discovered a Dark Lady in the Bodleian, and been seduced by her, he has ended up writing, in the latest version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, fiction disguised as scholarship.–

The New Narrative

John Kerrigan, 16 February 1984

‘When We talk of narrative poetry today,’ James Fenton asks in the September issue of Poetry Review, ‘are we referring to the kind of story in which, you want to know what happens next? I think not. I think that kind of story is deliberately excluded from consideration.’ It’s a well-timed question, with Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s advocacy of narrative in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry being so widely and respectfully read, and well-directed too, since it clarifies what’s confused in the Penguin introduction by the editors’ simultaneous recommendation of Post-Modernist ‘secrecy’ and the Keatsian ‘long poem’. The kind of story which flows from A to Z is clearly not what young poets have in mind when they speak of ‘a renewed interest in narrative’. Endymion is not the ‘Polar Star’ of their poetry, though Fenton’s minor masterpiece ‘A Vacant Possession’ may, and conceivably should, be what they strive to match. Reflexive, aleatory and cornucopian, the New Narrative deploys its fragmented and ramifying fictions to image the unpredictability of life, and its continuous shadowing by What Might Be. It seems, in short, no accident that Paul Muldoon – whose brilliant new book Quoof gives support to most of the claims being made for ‘narrative poetry today’ – should have told John Haffenden in an interview for Viewpoints that he found Robert Frost’s fable of imagined unlived lives, ‘The Road Not Taken’, exemplary.–

A horn-player greets his fate

John Kerrigan, 1 September 1983

At the climax of Browning’s strangest poem, a horn-player greets his fate undaunted by Death or Middle English Philology. Weary of questing and pestered by visions, Childe Roland reaches the Dark Tower with the names of fallen comrades ringing in his ears. The hills encircle him like sprawling giants. His death seems certain ––

Shakespeare and the Stage

John Kerrigan, 21 April 1983

Plans have been laid, the land is bought and later this year contractors will start to build, at Southwark, on or near the original site, a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s an exciting scheme, and everyone interested in drama must be grateful to Sam Wanamaker and his academic accomplices for advancing it – especially since the space will apparently be used not only for More Shakespeare but for neglected works by his contemporaries. But whatever the merits of the Globe Theatre Project, it’s a scheme attended with insidious dangers. For the temptation to assume that, with careful research, Shakespeare’s theatre can be reconstituted in lath and plaster is almost irresistible, when everything essential to that theatre actually lies beyond archaeology. As Michael Hattaway reminds us in his eloquent new study of Elizabethan Popular Theatre, the Rose, the Curtain, the Globe and the rest did not define the drama that they housed. Far more important than the ‘wooden O’ and ‘cockpit’ were those shared attitudes to language and illusion, spectacle and narrative that generations of actors and audiences worked out in Tudor halls, inn yards and bear gardens. In other words, when the last piece of marbled timber is slotted into place at Southwark, the real work must begin, with the elaboration of a mode of performance which, open to Elizabethan influence (appropriate, indeed, to a replica playhouse), can nevertheless be read without anxiety by modern audiences.–

Since I was unaware until I read Brendan Bradshaw’s CV (Letters, 3 July) that he had been educated by the Christian Brothers, I must plead not guilty to attempting ‘an ad hominem put-down’ in my review of The British Problem when I compared his Irish nationalism with the attitudes traditionally (and not always justly) associated with the sort of school I went to myself.Given my reservations...

‘There is a touch​ of Shylock in this,’ John Kerrigan says of a moment in King Lear. There are touches of Shylock in many places outside The Merchant of Venice, and indeed outside...

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We never went on holiday to foreign countries when I was a child. Not to properly foreign ones, anyway. Although we lived on the South Coast, the family Hillman Minx would head not towards a...

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Getting Even

Adam Phillips, 19 September 1996

We wouldn’t think of anything as a tragedy if we did not have a deeply ingrained sense of order already there to be affronted. Tragedy in life, and as art, exposes by violation our mostly...

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Art of Embarrassment

A.D. Nuttall, 18 August 1994

Humane, learned, un-showily stylish and at times moving in their tender intelligence, these essays by Anne Barton, ranging from a richly ‘mellow’ piece first published in 1953 –...

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Mrs Shakespeare

Barbara Everett, 18 December 1986

It may be assumed that the Dark Lady and the Fair Young Man are at least in part merely Anne Hathaway: a woman seen in darkness and in light, masked and unmasked, always a shadowy haunter of the poet’s...

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