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Guardian first book award 2013: finding the 10th title


Our search for the 10th title for the award longlist threw up nominations of all stripes. But poetry has triumphed

In defiance of some tricky technological issues – for which please accept additional apologies– we assembled a stack of tasty nominations for the 10th slot on the first book award longlist. From Helen Cadbury's "pithy little state of the nation book" To Catch a Rabbit to Andy Hunter's "difficult to categorise" Tearing at Thoughts and from Sam Byer's "scathing, savagely brilliant satire of modern life" Idiopathy to Leon Hughes's "beautiful, haunting" Wings of Contrition the list spanned the publishing universe from literary crime to experimental poetry, from big publisher to self-publisher.

With such an eclectic list, full of authors and publishers I'm discovering for the first time – shout out to the folks at Crooked Cat Publishing– it's invidious to pick out anything from the pile, but I'm going to do it anyway. Who could resist the daffy energy of Sharon Baillie's unstable chemist Veronica Dempsey in the novel Magenta Opium, published by New Libri Press:

Twenty-two year old, average weight, average height, average brown hair, average brown eyes, average bowel movements, average heart rate, average eyelash length, average top speed, above average recall, less than average social intellect, Veronica Dempsey had never experienced the touch of love. As she was more interested in turbidity than turgidity, this fact was neither here nor there. She hadn't fallen off a mountain either, nor stepped into traffic in full flow, nor learned Für Elise on the piano, nor visited the continent, nor ate Marmite, scallops or beef Pot Noodle …

This "zany, black comedy, lightly peppered with sex, chemistry, and sex chemistry" may not have particularly likeable characters, as mrsmorden says, but Baillie's wordplay fizzes along past dead bodies, vandalism and laboratory shenanigans. "Don't be misled by the pink cover," mrsmorden concludes. "Like the well-known chocolate bar, this book's not for girls. It truly punches above its weight."

There's more fighting talk from Rhian E Jones, whose Clampdown argues that popular culture has inverted over the last 30 years to reflect the voices of the powerful instead of voices from the margins:

For many there has always been poverty, precarity, petty criminality and police animosity, but the years since the crisis of 2008 have exacerbated their reach and increased their visibility, resulting in their sudden horrified pointing out by those who might previously have missed them due to being shielded by better prospects and broader horizons. At the same time, under the Coalition, the demise of upwards aspiration and social mobility, and the doublethink, delusion or deceit involved in the assertion of classlessness have put an end to the affirmative, if blithely ignorant, appropriation of working-class signifiers which was encouraged in the Blair years. Now that things are going badly, poor is no longer cool, merely comical or contemptible.

Key into Jones's quickfire, rat-a-tat, cultural-studies delivery and this book "bubbles like a boiling pot on a stove" as ID5591424 suggests. At only 97 pages, perhaps "everybody who cares about society and the arts needs to read this" after all.

There's raw power of a different sort in Eimear McBride's beautifully-produced A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Pitched into the head of an unnamed narrator, the reader rolls in the sway of a chaotic life in rural Ireland:

I take the bus home reeling over me. That's a feeling. Frighten brilliant new. I am just head on the pillow when she phone. The bring bring. It's half past nine. I'll sleep but landlady whack. You. You. Your mother's on the phone. She's been calling half the night don't let me say it again. Sorry.

It's certainly dark, as ID615949 admits, but the way McBride replicates thought "as it occurs: starting, stopping, jolting, flowing, jumping back and forth" is immensely impressive.

Which brings us on to the Anglo-Breton poet Claire Trévien, whose collection of poems, The Shipwrecked House, has – after much deliberation – been selected for the first book award longlist. Trévien's subjects range from Cyrano de Bergerac's defiant "fuck you to Death" to Great British Bake-Off tweets, from communion wine to a skit on the death of the author, couched in verses which stretch from a straightforward(ish) sonnet to a fractured riff on the violin and beyond to a disintegration of Antony Gormley's Another Place which evaporates towards nothingness over the space of four pages.

We're never far from the ocean, which creaks to a halt and solidifies in "Rusty Sea":

Saturday, the sea turned brown, shutters clattered / closed to keep the stink out. Dead fish burst to the surface, / seagulls flew so far in they forgot to return. Weeds clambered / up, tentacles piercing the plane, midges drew laced / patterns in the sky. We waited for the tide to start again.

Or washes up on stage in the delta-wing "Mélusine", a "human" above, but "below … a snake wrapped round a cello":

… in her hands she holds a crop to scald / the beast of wood and string. The stage is strewn with the wreckage / of a strange ship: amps, and wires teased into stands, lights blinkered, caged …

Or surges up from below, like the whales which "lived under our house", though "the carpet looked too smooth to hide a mammal":

Most of the time they just wanted to play / bounced against bookshelves, snorted leaks, / threw bodies across the room.

It's certainly "both accessible and slanting … A page-turner and a slow-burner at the same time" as caramail suggests, and goes forward to the first book award longlist with hearty congratulations to Claire Trévien, and to all at Penned in the Margins. And thanks for all your nominations, which have thrown up such a fascinating and varied cross-section of publishing life. I can't wait to see how The Shipwrecked House measures up against the rest of the longlist.

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Readers choose Guardian first book award's 10th finalist


The Shipwrecked House by Claire Trévien marks the second year running that a poetry collection is the public's nomination

A "playful and surreal" collection of poems has won a place on the Guardian first book award longlist after being nominated by readers, making it the second year running that their recommendations have propelled a debut poetry book onto the list.

The Shipwrecked House by Claire Trévien, left, described by one reader as inspired and moving, is published by Penned in the Margins, an independent press from east London.

"I'm very influenced by the sea, having grown up in a coastal town in Brittany, and I wanted to explore the legends, the history and the landscape. The other aspect is domestic violence – this is not a home that is on happy ground but has been thrown against the rocks," Trévien said.

"I like to create my own forms, and I like it when content reflects form, I am trying to give an extra layer of interest for the reader."

Her editor, Tom Chivers, said: "Claire will have a cult following in the future. I discovered her while judging a poetry prize and asked her to submit a manuscript which was playful and surreal. Claire is someone who's able to be quite exploratory with form, but is also very readable."

He added that the sea "is an important metaphor in her work. It was great to edit because it was a big idea that you could grab and layer into the collection".

The 10th slot on the first book award longlist is reserved for a title that emerges from Guardian reader nominations. The other nine titles on the longlist will be announced later this summer and a panel of judges, along with reading groups in Waterstones bookshops around the country, will find the eventual winner, to be announced in December.

"It's a page turner and a slow burner at the same time," said one reader, of The Shipwrecked House. "While the collection's back story is dark (domestic violence, family deaths), she approaches such subject matter with a light surreal hand."

Another contributor to the website remarked: "This smells of the sea in all its forms, magical and mystical, transporting you in eternally moving sea worlds."

The book by Trévien follows in the footsteps of Pelt, Sarah Jackson's "assured and mysterious" debut poetry collection nominated in 2011, and Down the Rabbit Hole, a novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos, the first readers' choice, which made the 2010 shortlist.

The Shipwrecked House also continues readers' fondness for independent publishers. Down the Rabbit Hole was the first book to be published by And Other Stories, a rising star among small presses, which aims to "promote a diverse literary culture". And Pelt was published by Bloodaxe Books, one of the UK's leading poetry houses.

Trévien is known on the UK poetry circuit for her website, sabotagereviews.com, which publishes reviews of "poetry, fiction magazines, manifestos, online journals, stapled pieces of paper, installation poetry, performed poetry".

She has previously written pamphlets and single poems, as well as edited Penning Perfumes, an anthology of scent-inspired poetry.

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George the Poet: 'Go Home' - video

May Sinclair: the readable modernist


While the 'Men of 1914' take all the attention, this approachable innovator has been outrageously neglected

The "Men of 1914" – writers such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and DH Lawrence – are as much the poster boys of modernism today as they were when Wyndham Lewis coined the phrase in 1937. But 40 years of Virago's modern classics have shown that Virginia Woolf wasn't the only female author at the head of the literary vanguard, rediscovering and repositioning the differing visions of modernity offered by writers such as Dorothy Richardson and Rebecca West. But despite Virago's efforts, and her central role in the modernist revolution, May Sinclair remains shrouded in obscurity.

Sinclair was not only a critically-respected, popular and extremely prolific novelist, but also a poet, philosopher, translator, and critic. Her career, spanning from the late 1880s all the way to the late 1920s, produced 23 novels, 39 short stories, two philosophical treatises, one biography of the Brontës and several poetry collections.

She is perhaps vaguely recalled, by literature students at least, for her review of Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage in 1918 in which she coined the literary version of the phrase "stream of consciousness", or alternatively her remarkably perceptive early review of TS Eliot's "Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock". Less appreciated by most, however, is Sinclair's pivotal role in that early modernist milieu. She provided patronage to the young Ezra Pound and introduced him to Ford Madox Ford, an old friend of hers who as editor of the English Review would be the first to publish Pound's poems in England. She was good friends with Thomas Hardy, Henry James, HG Wells, Rebecca West and others, and was heavily involved with movements as diverse as women's suffrage, early psychoanalysis and imagist poetry.

These myriad influences are filtered and distilled in her fiction, which displays many of the tenets we would now deem to be modernist – stream-of-consciousness narration, temporal dislocation and discursive fragmentation – while at the same time remaining fundamentally readable. Sinclair's masterpiece, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922), for example, tells the story of one woman's life from birth to death in a refreshingly short and accessible 160 pages. It is a "small, perfect gem of a book", according to Jonathan Coe, who praised the novel's "tragic force" and the "reserve of authorial compassion we can sense in the gaps between each fragmentary episode and every terse, clipped sentence". Harriett's life of self-denial is Sinclair's indictment of a society which demanded women should turn themselves into self-sacrificing nonentities obsessed with pursuing "moral beauty" instead of self-fulfilment. Looking back on her life in middle age, Harriett finally realises how she has been complicit in her own subjugation and succumbs to despair:

The years passed. They went with an incredible rapidity, and Harriet was now fifty. The feeling of insecurity had grown on her … She had no clear illumination, only a mournful acquiescence in her own futility, an almost physical sense of shrinkage, the crumbling away, bit by bit, of her beautiful and honourable self.

The characteristically elliptical brevity of those first sentences, Sinclair's experiment in translating imagist poetic principles to prose, can be seen as the precursor – or, depending on your point of view, the antidote – to the great and at times intimidatingly unwieldy modernist novels of the 1920s, Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses.

Yet, for all its merits, this is the only one of Sinclair's novels currently in print. The Three Sisters (1914) – an atmospheric re-imagination of the Brontë story – and Mary Olivier (1919) – a quintessentially modernist "portrait of the artist as young (wo)man" published just as Joyce, Richardson and Woolf were also making their first forays into stream-of-consciousness prose – were both published by Virago in the 1980s, but both have since dropped from view. Earlier novels such as The Tysons (1898), The Divine Fire (1904) and The Creators (1910) – the latter the first novel to represent writing as a potentially central occupation of women's lives – have never been reprinted, despite their consummate artistry and insightful social and psychological realism.

For such an accomplished author, to have just one novel circulating in the 21st century is appalling. Sinclair was never a self-promoter (unlike most of her contemporaries) and seems to have suffered the consequences – there is no brash polemic, like Ezra Pound's "make it new" or Wyndham Lewis's incessant "blasting", to act as a platform from which all of her work appears radical or holistically comprehensible.

Indeed, perhaps the disadvantage of spanning such a wide timescale is that Sinclair's work is constantly changing and adapting to new conditions and ideas; her early New Woman novels bear little resemblance to her later modernist works, though there is little difference in quality. Instead, her fiction is infused with a plethora of influences, and it is this eclectic synthesis, rather than pure originality, which is Sinclair's strength. While academic circles are plagued with anxiety about whether such a popular and approachable author can ever be quite "literary" enough, she falls uncomfortably into the gap between the two. Whatever the reasons for her neglect, it has become a vicious circle: not being read means things go out of print, which means they're not read, which means they stay out of print …

But there are glimmers of hope. Sinclair's complete works are available on Project Gutenberg, and the May Sinclair Society, launched this month, will be organising discussions, conferences and yes, some long overdue new editions of her works. Perhaps this archetypal modernist will be rescued by that most modern of inventions, the internet.

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What I'm looking out for at Camp Bestival


From John Cooper Clarke to Janine Butcher, Richard Hawley to Mr Tumble, here are this year's most anticipated moments

Camp Bestival is the impish younger brother of the ever-expanding Bestival shindig, and lacking its sibling's capacity to attract marquee headline names, it puts its faith in eclecticism. Seriously, all human life is at this weekend's bash, whether your personal musical boat is floated by Richard Hawley, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the Polyphonic Spree, Nik Kershaw, Mark Owen, I Am Kloot, Musical Youth or John Cooper Clarke. The decade-spanning variety is so head-spinning it's almost psychedelic – Camp Bestival's expansive lineup is either channelling the late, semi-lamented Guilfest or impersonating a particularly scattergun episode of TOTP2. Here's what I'm most looking forward to.

Lateral thinking on the wheels of steel

The involvement of festival founder and organiser – and Radio 1 DJ – Rob da Bank means that the DJ lineup is way more invigorating than the normal tired roll call of Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia. The weekend boasts venerable figures such as Grandmaster Flash spinning old-school hip-hop, David Rodigan (MBE, don't you know) rinsing out roots reggae and lovers rock, and Fabio and Grooverider revisiting the halcyon days of drum'n'bass – not to mention Auntie Maureen playing sounds from the 1930s on a wind-up gramophone (and a laptop). You almost expect "Woo!" Gary Davies to pop up with his bit in the middle.

Kiddie wonderland

Camp Bestival is the most child-focused of the main music festivals, and harassed parents hoping to persuade their offspring to fidget through Billy Bragg on the main stage later can look to negotiate a trade-off involving Horrible Histories, Alice in Wonderland (the Camp Bestival summer panto) or Dick N Dom. Infant devotees of making farting noises with your mouth will be enraptured by Shlomo's beatbox adventure for kids, and never underestimate the star appeal of Mr Tumble: basically, if you are under five years old, meeting him is like meeting a Beatle.

Going grime in the country

Grime and the countryside: can these worlds ever meet? This summer, Wiley has not proven the most persuasive ambassador to rural parts for east London's hip-hop/R&B scene, flouncing away from Glastonbury without playing after tweeting "fuck them and their farm" and denouncing the crowd at Cumbria's CockRock festival as "pagans", "invalids" and "cretins". Dorset may quiver in trepidation, but luckily Hackney's emissary to Camp Bestival, Labrinth, is a very well brought-up young man who is unlikely to go potty-mouthed on its ass.

Poets, authors and talks

Camp Bestival is fast heading towards Latitude terrain in its embrace of talks, poetry and literature. This year, Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards is advising festival-goers how to fly, and Guardian scribes Simon Hattenstone and John Harris are at hand, talking about how to interview and staging the Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll quiz respectively. Please note that "How to play a baddie with Charlie Brooks" features the actress who plays Janine Butcher in EastEnders, and not Rebekah Brooks's legally beleaguered husband.

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Translation of Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone published


Italians consider him one of their greatest minds, but 19th-century poet and philosopher remains somewhat unknown

Schopenhauer referred to him as his "spiritual brother"; Italians consider him one of their greatest ever intellects, and his thoughts have been said to "go beyond those of every other European man of letters, from Goethe to Paul Valéry".

Yet, despite these many accolades, the 19th-century poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi remains unknown in the mainstream anglophone world.

"If today I say to a non-Italian scholar that the Canti are no less beautiful than the poems of Hölderlin or Goethe or [Baudelaire's] Fleurs du Mal, and I insist that the prose of [Leopardi's] Zibaldone is no less unsettling than that of Nietzsche, no one believes me," wrote the writer and critic Pietro Citati recently. "And yet that is exactly how things are."

After seven years of toil involving a team of translators in three different countries, however, that may be about to change with the publication in Britain on Thursday of the first complete English translation of Leopardi's famous notebook, the Zibaldone di pensieri.

A collection of the writer's ideas, observations and analyses over 15 years, the Zibaldone, or Hodge-Podge, as it is affectionately known by some, was published in Italy at the turn of the 20th century – more than 60 years after its author's premature death – and until now only parts had been put into English.

The new edition, produced under the auspices of the Leopardi Centre at Birmingham University, is the full, unexpurgated classic, and stretches to more than 2,500 pages.

"It has been very, very challenging because it's a very long text – huge, full of quotations in Greek Latin, French, Spanish, English," said co-editor Franco D'Intino, professor of modern Italian literature at La Sapienza University in Rome.

"One cannot master all that Leopardi mastered – that's the point. There is so much that he could understand that you cannot because you are not an encyclopaedic man of the 18th or 19th century. He was a genius, and I am not!"

Born in 1798 in a small town in what was then the Papal States, Leopardi is considered by many to be one of Italy's finest lyric poets, second only to Dante. D'Intino considers him "the Dante of modern times – the thinking poet, the moral and the metaphysical poet".

Despite his secluded upbringing, his writings, even those in his early years, posed questions deemed radical for his time. They showed an influence by the enlightenment and in many ways herald the nihilism of Nietszche.

Leopardi was a precocious talent, devouring languages both ancient and modern as a young man, and writing his first Canti by the age of 20. However his life came to be blighted by ill-health and he died, aged 38, in 1837. He wrote his last lyric poem, The Waning of the Moon, shortly before his death.

Published by Penguin in the UK, the edition was also released on 9 July in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, whose president and publisher Jonathan Galassi translated Leopardi's Canti to wide critical acclaim in 2010.

Michael Caesar, emeritus professor of Italian Studies at Birmingham and the Zibaldone translation's other co-editor, said he hoped the book would elicit the curiosity of anglophone readers and introduce them to one of the lesser-known European greats.

"Leopardi is surprisingly modern, in the way in which he reasons, in his alertness to what is going on in the world around him, but also in the way in which he's in many ways implicitly or explicitly predicting how things will go in the future," said Caesar. "He has an idea of a human society that is almost entirely divorced from its origins or indeed from its environment … So he is definitely one of the moderns, even if he is a modern who is absolutely steeped in classical and early scientific thinking."

Writing in the Corriere della Sera, Citati, a biographer of Leopardi, said the Italian was an "essential figure" who was largely missing in other cultures. Of the translated Zibaldone, he added: "I hope the work has great success, and that it leads to the publication of all Leopardi's works in every language."

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The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry edited by Ian Hamilton and Jeremy Noel-Tod – review


Adam Newey is baffled and buoyed by the updated version of the poet's Who's Who

She's a fickle creature, literary fame. While your Eliots and Audens can rest easy in the knowledge that their celebrity is for the ages, some will find her embrace all too brief, being quickly thrown over for a series of newer, younger gallants. In the case of Jeremy Noel-Tod's updated edition of Ian Hamilton's 1994 Oxford Companion, "all too brief" signifies fewer than 20 years – in literary-historical terms, a mere blink of the eye.

The passage of those years has necessitated a change of title, from "20th-Century" to "Modern" poetry. That, and the increase in pagination (Hamilton came in at a little over 600 pages), may make one suspect that we are dealing with the "long" 20th century here. In fact, Noel‑Tod's starting point is 10 years on from Hamilton's: 1910, when Kipling was in his pomp (it was the year he published "If"), Ezra Pound was making it new in London, and a 22-year-old TS Eliot was getting down to work on "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock".

The criteria for inclusion of new poets are much as Hamilton outlined them in 1994: poets must be 30 or above (if still living), writing in English, with at least three (as against Hamilton's one) full-length collections to their name. Organisationally, the new volume is a little different: Noel-Tod has removed entries about particular poetic movements and magazines to an appendix, and excised entries on formal innovations and technical matters entirely, so the main text is now a straightforward biographical dictionary of poets. Unlike Hamilton, who commissioned his entries from about 230 contributors, Noel-Tod has provided most of the new ones himself, as well as updating those on poets who were still active at the time of Hamilton's book.

In the introduction Noel-Tod says he has "removed, replaced, or sought to temper entries which seemed more suited in tone to a bar-room dismissal, and even, in some cases, calculated to start a brawl". This seems a shame. For instance, Martin Seymour-Smith's rubbishing of the once-popular poet WW Gibson ("Gibson's work was consistently uninspired and rhythmically flat. Claims that a few war poems are exceptional do not stand up to investigation") has gone.

In essence, however, it remains Hamilton's book, retaining many of the acerbic judgments and off-piste observations that make it such a pleasure, Seymour-Smith's prominent among them. On the one-time poetry editor of the Paris Review, Michael Benedikt: "Many of his poems have struck critics as loose to the point of carelessness." And on John Drinkwater: "One of those poets who may safely be described as quintessentially Georgian … His work, unlike that of Graves, de la Mare, and even (very occasionally) JC Squire, has failed to last … His greatest interest in later life was philately."

The decision to smooth out some of the earlier edition's eccentricities is understandable – somewhat unconventionally, Hamilton included entries on Stephen Crane, the novelist, who died in 1900 and wrote very little poetry; on Lilian Bowes Lyon, the Queen Mother's cousin, who wrote poems about horses and hares; on Oscar Wilde's quondam lover Alfred Douglas; and on Alex Comfort, physician, pacifist, critic and sometime poet, now remembered principally for The Joy of Sex. Perhaps more controversially, Noel-Tod has seen fit to excise the entry on Bob Dylan.

It is interesting to note who now makes the cut for the first time – as Noel-Tod notes, in the first volume women accounted for just 13% of entries. He has set out to redress the balance. Hence Carol Ann Duffy and Jo Shapcott are now joined by the likes of Lavinia Greenlaw, Kathleen Jamie, Kate Clanchy and Sophie Hannah, among many others. Poets who were young entrants last time round – Simon Armitage, Glyn Maxwell, for instance – are given substantial updates. Don Paterson, missing in 1994 and now a central figure in the poetry publishing scene, is here. And, quite rightly, Roger McGough gets his own entry, having been subsumed in the first edition into a brief paragraph on the Liverpool poets ("a part of sociological rather than literary history", was Seymour-Smith's snootily de haut en bas appraisal).

The most dismal difference between the books, inevitably, is the frequency with which that open hyphen in the poets' dates has had to be closed off – Thom Gunn, Mick Imlah, UA Fanthorpe, Michael Donaghy, Peter Porter… the list is long and grim, and it includes Hamilton himself, whose entry is now much expanded from the brief paragraph he allocated himself in 1994. Hamilton hoped then that his book would be serious and useful, as well as pleasurable. On this point, both he and his successor can be reassured. It remains an essential and enjoyable guide to what Noel-Tod refers to as the disorderly garden of English-language poetry.

One final threnodic note, though plenty of the entries he wrote remain, the one on Seymour-Smith himself – poet, critic, biographer, astrologer – is, alas, no more. Oh yes, she's a fickle thing, literary fame.

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The Saturday poem: Communion


by Claire Trévien

The weather's gained weight,
sags its pebbled belly against the tips
of the city's horns.

I've slumped, waiting for it to decide,
grotesque piñata, whether to burst
or rapture itself away.

The world has ended, or, at least,
most people have. I am no Avenger:
I have found wine spared

in collapsed cellars; it tastes of hills
now plucked out of reach. Grapes
have been crushed, made to sour

for my pleasure. Unwaged fingers
now mingle with the vines
while the wine runs down my throat.

Broken bottles, broken sky: red rain
heaves out of the cracked world.
I open my mouth for communion.

• From The Shipwrecked House, published by Penned in the Margins, RRP £8.99.

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Poem of the week: Girl and Grandmother at the National Gallery by Meg Bateman


Published here with its Gaelic version, 'Nighean is Seanmhair aig a' Ghailearaidh Nàiseanta', this is a sharp look at youth and age

The Edinburgh-born poet Meg Bateman is acclaimed for her work in Scottish Gaelic. Her latest volume, Transparencies, published this month by Polygon, marks a new departure, containing a number of poems in English only. Nonetheless, to double the pleasure of readers who have both languages at their command, I've chosen as this week's poem the bi-lingual "Girl and Grandmother at the National Gallery"/ "Nighean is Seanmhair aig a' Ghailearaidh Nàiseanta".

What the book-jacket refers to as the collection's "Gaelic aesthetic" can be sensed, even in the English poems, in the cadence of Bateman's line, and in the unassuming directness of her voice. The poems have the strength and simplicity of art made for a community rather than an elite, though they are far from artless.

The title, "Girl and Grandmother at the National Gallery", sounds like the title of a painting. and the opening stanza appropriately forms a clear and focused picture.

While there's no physical description of the girl (and none seems needed), the grandmother is vividly sketched, "with her stick in one hand and her arm in yours". Those sharp monosyllables convey the almost military precision of organisation she needs to stay mobile and upright. Further details are added via a deft and cunning move into the girl's point of view ("You little imagine … ") The language is unforced and ordinary: "old as the hills", "wrinkled", "bent". "Old as the hills" is particularly well-worn, the first comparative reached for whenever we want to conjure unimaginable age. It probably sums up accurately what the girl herself thinks about her grandmother. But it achieves considerable poetic effectiveness through association. The old woman is labouring up a hill of steps. Her bent back can be visualised as a small hill. There are hills in the surrounding landscape, and they do indeed pre-date the city by millennia.

That the speaker has chosen to address the girl is declared early on by the use of the second-person possessive pronoun. She remains the addressee throughout the poem, except when, in a grammatical nuance unavailable to English, both women are signalled by "sibh", the plural form of "you" in Gaelic, at the end of stanza one.

The girl's sense of her own absolute separateness from her ancient grandmother has been established only to be gently challenged: "But you are contemporaries – " These lines, of course, also challenge the apartheid which has developed in many urban western societies between old and young. Other values, those of rural or more traditional cultures, underlie the first stanza's closing affirmation. Young and old are both connected and synchronised, "you walk this earth together".

The second stanza implies a new balance of power. Now it's the grandmother's turn to lead the granddaughter. She knows exactly where the sought-for picture hangs, "over in the corner". Again, crucial to the art and thought of this poem is the notion of balance. We were shown the old woman through the granddaughter's eyes. Now we're shown David Martin's "Self-Portrait" from the grandmother's perspective.

Her appraisal begins with the bare facts – the title of the painting, the artist's name and date. But she goes on to point out some finer aesthetic details. Her attentiveness is indicated by the reference to the "trace of foxglove in his cheeks". The foxglove's pink is sharper and blue-er than that of the rose, the flower usually associated with the human face. The grandmother must have stared searchingly at the portrait on other occasions, and thought about the exact skin-tone. The "shadowy eyes" suggest a mysterious, perhaps erotic, back-story to the portrait. Otherwise, the physical details, like those of the first stanza, are simple and conventional: "long fair lashes", "chiselled lips". They are accurate, and they emphasise the artist's youth and romantic good looks.

As before, it's the last two lines of the stanza that deliver the thrust. If there's a hint of deconstructed sonnet-form in the poem, it's most noticeable in the forceful way the two stanzas conclude, with lines six and sevan in each packing the punch, almost, of an Elizabethan couplet.

The idiomatic syntax heightens the assertiveness of tone; "and no better claim have you than she … " That the young girl has "no better claim" on the lips in the portrait might be read as the speaker's acknowledgment of the grandmother's desire, and her right to feel desire. Yet these are not actual lips, as the qualification, "caught between glazes", reminds us.

Artists in oils traditionally used glazes in building up subtlety and depth of colour. These glazes are perhaps compounded by the framer's glaze – the glass. The artist's likeness has been caught, and he appears lifelike, but he cannot escape into life.

The "claim" may be that of desire, but it may denote more simply the right of different viewers to their personal responses. Perhaps the girl imagines herself being kissed by the young man portrayed, whereas the old woman brings an equally valid act of memory to her response: she has been kissed in the past by lips like his.

By choosing an 18th-century painting, the poet has somehow telescoped the passage of time. The young artist "caught between glazes" died long ago. He is the oldest person in the trio, and perhaps, simultaneously, the youngest (at 23, he seems unlikely to be older than the granddaughter). The poem challenges short-sighted personal obsessions with time, and invites a more generous and imaginative definition of the "contemporary".

Girl and Grandmother at the National Gallery

Girl helping your grandmother up the gallery steps
with her stick in one hand and her arm in yours,
to you she seems as old as the hills,
you little imagine your own hand wrinkled
or your back bent,
but you are contemporaries –
you walk this earth together.

She leads you to a painting over in the corner,
"Self-portrait of the Artist at Twenty-Three"
by David Martin (18th Century, Scottish),
shows you the trace of foxglove in his cheek,
the shadowy eyes and long fair lashes,
and no better claim have you than she
on the chiselled lips caught between glazes.

Nighean is Seanmhair aig a' Ghailearaidh Nàiseanta

A nighean a dhìreas an staidhre le do sheanmhair,
a dàrna làmh na do làimh-sa, a bata san tèile,
saoilidh tu gu bheil i cho sean ris a' cheò,
gun smuain air do làmh fhèin a' fàs preasach
no do dhruim crotach…
ach tha sibh nur co-aoisich
's sibh a' siubhal an t-saoghail seo còmhla.

Treòraichidh i gu dealbh thall san oisean thu,
"Fèin-dhealbh a' pheantair aig fichead bliadhna 's a trì"
le Dàibhidh Màrtainn (Albannach, ochdamh linn deug),
seallaidh i dhut tuar nam ban-sìth na ghruaidh,
na sgàilean na shùilean, a ruisg fhada bhàna,
is cha dad nas treasa do chòir-sa seach a còir-se
air a bheul cumadail glacte fo gach lì.Carol

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Can you improve on F Scott Fitzgerald's improving reading list?


Fitzgerald thought he'd prescribed 22 essential books to his nurse. But your second opinions are encouraged

It was 1936, one of the most difficult periods in F Scott Fitzgerald's life: he had just published his essay The Crack-Up in Esquire magazine, exploring the mental and physical decline that would lead to his death four years later.

As he convalesced in a North Carolina hotel, his thoughts turned to choosing 22 books that might educate his nurse Dorothy Richardson, while perhaps distracting her from her attempts to keep him sober. There's no record of whether she felt encouraged or patronised by this literary guidance.

Three volumes of introspection from Marcel Proust's À La Recherche du Temps Perdu were offset a single laugh-along volume of The Best American Humorous Short Stories. Should Richardson find Tolstoy's War and Peace hard going, she could console herself with the wit of Oscar Wilde, or the piquant brevity of Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party".

In his essay, Fitzgerald described the depths of the distress he'd suffered when, "10 years this side of 49, I suddenly realised I had prematurely cracked".

He wrote: "Now a man can crack in many ways – can crack in the head, in which case the power of decision is taken from you by others; or in the body, when one can but submit to the white hospital world; or in the nerves …"

"I realised that in those two years, in order to preserve something – an inner hush maybe, maybe not – I had weaned myself from all the things I used to love – that every act of life from the morning toothbrush to the friend at dinner had become an effort."

One can't help wondering how much of this cracked-up self he glimpsed Gardner Murphy's An Outline of Abnormal Psychology, or how much melancholy fellowship he found in the Complete Poetical Works of John Keats, particularly perhaps, the haunting sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be".

Perhaps the most heartening feature of the list is what it reveals about the range and energy of his reading: here was a man who could wax lyrical about plays, poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Here's his list. Which books would you add (or subtract)?

Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
The Life of Jesus, by Ernest Renan
A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiel Hammett
The Red and the Black, by Stendhal
The Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, translated by Michael Monahan
An Outline of Abnormal Psychology, edited by Gardner Murphy
The Stories of Anton Chekhov, edited by Robert N Linscott
The Best American Humorous Short Stories, edited by Alexander Jessup
Victory, by Joseph Conrad
The Revolt of the Angels, by Anatole France
The Plays of Oscar Wilde
Sanctuary, by William Faulkner
Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust
The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust
Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust
South Wind, by Norman Douglas
The Garden Party, by Katherine Mansfield
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley: Complete Poetical Works

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Nigel Williams's top 10 books about suburbia


From John Betjeman to Zadie Smith, the creator of The Wimbledon Poisoner picks the best depictions of characters on the outskirts of life

My new novel is set in suburbia but it is not – exactly - about suburbia; it is about some of the people who live in it.

I suppose that is the main thing that has dictated my choice of the 10 best books (impossible task) about people who live in places not unlike Putney, where my new book is set. All these books are about utterly suburban individuals – people bound up in and absorbed by Clapham, Palmers Green or, indeed, Putney. All these books take them very seriously – especially when they are using them to provoke laughter.

1. The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey

This superb book has as its theme the way in which high-toned thinkers responded to the newly-literate classes, enfranchised and educated by late Victorian legislation. They were the people who first occupied the suburbs – the housing put up around the new railway stations that allowed the humble to trundle into London, as they still do, to return to a house, a garden, a fireside. It is a vivid evocation – unsnobbish and beautifully written, of the clerks and respectable workers who read the kind of magazines in which Sherlock Holmes first made his appearance. It is the perfect companion to –

2. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

A still-hilarious account of a trip up the Thames made by three young clerks in a double sculling skiff – a boat with an awning under which they plan to sleep while leading the simple life. They are defeated, of course, like all English holidaymakers, by the weather and the impossibility of picnics. Their reason for going? They are feeling a little under the weather and one of them discovers, after a perusal of a Medical Dictionary that he has got all the diseases in it – apart from Housemaid's Knee. Things have not changed much since the Edwardian era….

3. The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

Mr Pooter has become a living legend. He is one of those clerks described in John Carey's book and his adventures with tradesmen, foot scrapers and his hopeless son Lupin still engage and delight the reader. He is proud of his house, conscientious in his work and utterly devoted to his wife and family – which makes his absurdities and pomposities all the more touching.

4. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I was brought up in Kilburn – though we called it Fortune Green in a desperate attempt to impress people – and Smith's brilliantly-plotted, funny and absorbing picture of the streets and houses I remember (though she is a lot younger than me) bring back my childhood more vividly than almost any other book I can think of. My father was the headmaster of the old Kilburn Grammar School – an excellent institution destroyed by the moronic Labour council who still seem to be in charge of Brent. Smith's book is full of life, atmosphere and the joy I still experience whenever Walm Lane comes into view …

5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen's characters may roam all over the place – on nightmare cruises or ill-advised trips to Eastern Europe – but they are still bound to the suburban decencies. He writes about ordinary families with extraordinary honesty and delicacy and, though his characters are a long way from Palmers Green, their doomed attempts to do the right thing, for me, recall with almost painful clarity my own childhood, and, particularly, my father, who like the paterfamilias in this book, had a favourite chair … Incidentally, Freedom – whatever anyone may tell you – is just as good.

6.Collected Poems by John Betjeman

Betjeman is the man who said one of his great regrets was not having had enough sex. Perhaps if he had had more of it he would not have written such glorious evocations of the tennis club, Ruislip Station or any of the other landmarks of Metroland about which he enthused so charmingly.

7. Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

I never went to Larkin's street in Hull but, when I worked at the BBC, in the days when they did films about poets, I found myself looking at the outside of his house quite a lot. It looked pretty suburban to me. His poems are not as  emphatically about the commuter belt as Betjeman's, but when he turns his eye on the neighbours, he quite definitely belongs on this list. Think of that poem of his "Vers de Societé" that describes so many awful suburban evenings where one has "To listen to the drivel of some bitch/Who's read nothing but Which …" And when he is in forgiving mood he can be touching about the quiet streets where we will "never see such innocence again".

8. Late Pickings by Gavin Ewart

Not all these poems are about suburbia but it does contain the best poem ever written about Putney High Street. Possibly the only poem ever written about Putney High Street. Larkin rated Gavin Ewart so highly he wrote a poem to him. Ewart is the man who wrote – "Miss Twye was soaping her breasts in her bath/ When she heard behind her a meaning laugh/ She turned and to her amazement discovered/ A wicked man in the bathroom cupboard." So, well, a genius, but also, something you may have gathered I love, a passionate advocate of the ordinary. He is not only a highly-accomplished versifier but someone who can find joy in a sign outside a café on the Upper Richmond Road that reads "BREAKFAST ALL DAY". He is greatly missed.

9. The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe

All Coe's novels are great but this one has the authentic suburban touch. It is about a group of grammar school boys in a city that is almost all suburb – not a remark which will please occupants of Birmingham. Mind you - I am the man who once asked that eminent Brummie fiction writer, Jim Crace, whether Birmingham had an airport …

10. South of the River by Blake Morrison

Morrison is an excellent poet and has become a brilliant novelist. This book has many wonderful things in it. Its characters may not be quite tennis-club material but they are certainly bound by their south London location; and, for me, it has the best description of a writer failing to deliver since Gissing's New Grub Street.

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Poster poems: Found poetry


Cut-up or collage, the challenge this month is to concoct something new from other people's words

One night sometime in the early 1930s a New Jersey doctor left a note for his wife on the door of their fridge. He looked at it again and saw something he hadn't noticed when first writing it down, something that made him write it out anew. The doctor was William Carlos Williams and the note became This is just to say, one of the best-known and most widely discussed "found poems" ever written. There was nothing particularly new about poems that used existing texts as their starting point, but Williams managed to create an example that was both ordinary and controversial at the same time, and it still stands as something of a breakthrough moment in American literature.

This is just to say is an oddity of the genre, not just for its fame but also because the original source was a text by the poet himself. Usually, poets find their poems in prose written by others. In the case of Howard Nemerov's aptly titled Found Poem, the source was a newspaper and I can't help but imagine that the original was somewhat less entertaining than Nemerov's reimagining.

Other poets have drawn on historical documents and records as a rich source for their work. Charles Reznikoff's Slave Sale: New Orleans is a fine example of the poetry that can be unearthed from these texts by the sensitive addition of line and stanza breaks. While Reznikoff's found poems tend to the narrative and expansive, Ian Hamilton Finlay made terse lyrics from nothing but the names, and sometimes serial numbers, of Scottish fishing boats. While many of these poems were published on paper, he often turned them into quite literal examples of concrete poetry.

Other writers like to take a more active part in the remaking of their found texts. When William Burroughs collaborated with the artist and writer Brion Gysin on a book called The Third Mind they set out to explain the techniques they had been using to create their strangely disjunctive styles of writing, the cut-up. Cut-up poems are a form of collage where an existing text is literally cut into segments which are then rearranged to make new pieces of writing. In print, they often lose the visual clues to their origin, but many writers are happy to present them as they made them.

Sometimes the sources for collage poems are other poems, in which case there's a name for them, the Cento. We tend to think of collage and the like as modern inventions, but there are examples of the Cento to be found in the works of Latin poets of the third and fourth centuries and the basic rules were formulated by Ausonius in around 350. A more recent example is Wolf Cento by Simone Muench.

Characteristically, avant-garde composer and poet John Cage pushed the idea of the found or collage poem further than most with his mesostic poems, acrostics constructed from other writers' works where the letters of the words being spelt out run down the centre rather than on the left-hand margin. This process of "writing through" an existing poem or text to a set of formal rules provided, for Cage, a discipline similar to that involved in the process of composing music. His poems are a kind of serious game, which isn't a bad definition for any art.

And so this month's Poster poems challenge is to write found/collage/cut-up poems of your own. You can use any kind of source text or texts that takes your fancy. Think of it as being a bit like making scrambled eggs; everyone has their own favourite recipe, but if you mix the ingredients well you're bound to end up with a tasty treat. So don't just sit there, get scrambling.

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The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan – review


The Irish poet comes into his own with this charming collection

Looking for a single image to epitomise post-independence Ireland in his study, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, Daniel Corkery settled on the Munster hurling final. "Who speaks for these?" he asks of the tens of thousands of fans packed into Semple stadium, in County Tipperary. That was in 1931, but how often must the question have been repeated by poets south of the border all through the Troubles and the dominance of Northern Irish poets. Eighty years later, an Ulster team has still never won the Hurling All-Ireland, but there are three Cork poets on the Faber list. In "The Cross", Maurice Riordan even imagines the sound of a GAA match being "broadcast live from Thurles or Birr" on a toy-car radio in a model village.

Nevertheless, Riordan's scenes from rural life are emphatically not located in Toytown. Like Bernard O'Donoghue, and to a lesser extent Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Riordan practises a pastoral style all too easily mistaken, not least by British readers, for escapism, conjuring a world as distant-seeming from Anglo-Irish Bank and the demise of the Celtic Tiger as a John Hinde postcard or The Quiet Man. Riordan satirised these misconceptions in "Indian Summer" from his first collection A Word from the Loki, where an Ann Summers sales assistant comments: "It must be gorgeous! Ireland, /the countryside, in this heat."

Modernity and tradition have an awkward encounter in "The Flight". Due to board a flight but minus his passport, a youthful Riordan shouts down the line at his mother: "How come you cannot use a phone?" Switching to the present, he is once again in need of assistance with a flight and imagines all will be well if "Mammy now would ring me on my mobile". In "The Age of Steam", Riordan charts decades of wanderings between Ireland, Canada and Britain before circling back to the experience of loss, and "the hissing thumping piston – 14 years on – of grief". As in O'Donoghue's elegies, the dark core of grief is skirted round for much of the poem before obtruding with sudden, and all the more poignant, force.

A further suite of elegies follows, memorialising Michael Donaghy and two other poets who died young, Michael Murphy and Gregory O'Donoghue. It was Enoch Powell who claimed that all political lives end in failure, but from the elegist's point of view, failure and incompletion are much more beguiling tropes than success. Who would want to read an elegy that listed all a dead poet's prizes? The closing image of Riordan's elegy for Donaghy, of the poet disappearing into traffic, speaks with a Virgilian authority of sorry leave-taking.

Another early poem, "Time Out", constructs a hypothetical scenario in which an accident befalls a father while his young children are sleeping. Several poems in The Water Stealer explore domestic life through the same lens of threatened or imagined loss. In the title poem, the depredations of a fox in the garden bring home to Riordan the connectedness of all he holds dear, and life more generally:

the dog that barked that scared the mare

that carried the man that reared the foal

that loved the rider that rode the mare

that flung the rider headlong into the road

More often, loss occurs on a banally everyday level, as when the poet feeds his toenail clippings to a Venus flytrap and discards his nose-pickings in the cactus. Just when we suspect Riordan has made his peace with old-fogeydom, he mouths the word "asshole" through the window at a passing youth, and the picture of abjection is complete. At one point, the poet confesses to problems remembering names, but in "The Face" he describes his difficulty recognising himself. Others have mistaken him too, for "a country singer somebody Dutch /or Danish an upstate weatherman", but looking at his reflection he sees "a canny impostor /swung around in search of some /other surely a likeness truer than this". In the wider context, these melancholy moods only underline the sensual freedom achieved in a poem such as "The Nests", where the poet fuses a lover with the landscape: "We come in due course to a river, where I lie face down /on your surface, the rain soft on my spine."

Among several charming poems from the Irish in The Water Stealer is "The New Poetry", after Eochaidh Ó hÉoghusa (1567–1617). James Carney took Ó hÉoghusa as his case study in his 1958 essay "The Irish Bard", in which he describes the bard's peculiar habit in Gaelic times of sleeping with his chieftain. Readers of Riordan's first books might be forgiven for detecting an impulse in his apprentice efforts to creep into bed with their influences, principally Seamus Heaney, but the poems of The Water Stealer make their own bed and lie on it too. This doesn't prevent feverish night thoughts in "Gone With the Wind", a beautiful meditation on memory and forgetting. This is a strong, wise and enduring work: The Water Stealer shows Riordan coming fully into his own.

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In search of Shakespeare's dark lady


Without a true story of adultery and retribution, Shakespeare's intimate, sexually charged sonnets might never have been published. Saul Frampton reveals the part played by the playwright's arch rival and the identity of the mysterious Dark Lady

On 20 May 1609, the publisher Thomas Thorpe stepped off Ludgate Hill into Stationers' Hall, and registered what was to become perhaps the most famous poetic works of all time: Shakespeare's Sonnets. It was a slim volume on publication, containing 154 poems over 67 pages, and the edition is now extremely rare: only 13 copies survive. But its influence has been all-encompassing, providing a template for language, for literature, for love, ever since. Recent years have seen the sonnets disseminated in ways that Shakespeare could never have imagined. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" is quoted 5m times on the internet. Apps have been created in which famous voices recite the poems, sonnets are tweeted, T-shirts are printed, and poetry that was once said to circulate only among Shakespeare's "private friends" is now stored for ever in the cloud.

Yet despite the popularity of the sonnets, their mysteries continue to puzzle readers. Who were the young man and "dark lady" of the poems' sexual intrigues? And did Shakespeare want these poems published, or kept private? Literary theory advises against such biographical speculation. Yet modern bibliography stresses the messier side of literary life: that texts are physical not abstract entities; that printers were sometimes pirates, not always with their author's interests at heart. In addition, text databases such as Early English Books Online allow one to isolate the unusual aspects of a writer's vocabulary, and therefore suggest what they might or might not have written. And these techniques help to link together a series of exciting discoveries about the sonnets: that an arch-rival of Shakespeare's may have masterminded their publication; that their publication was therefore an act of revenge; and that the "dark lady" at the centre of the story was not a poetic fiction but a real person.

Recent scholarship has asked whether these intimate, sexually charged poems were published with Shakespeare's permission, with the consensus being that they were not. The story the sonnets told – of the poet's obsession with a young man (almost certainly Henry Wriothesley), and of a ménage à trois involving the poet, the young man and a married woman– would probably have struck many 17th-century readers as sordid (albeit a good read). The poems end with images of disease – of "fever", "strange maladies" and a "seething bath" – seen by some to refer to the "sweating tubs" used to cure syphilis.

Given these embarrassing personal details, it seems unlikely that Shakespeare would have approved of the sonnets' publication. Scholars point to the carelessness of the editing compared with Shakespeare's previous poems, "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece"; the likelihood that Thorpe had published bootlegged material before; and the fact that Shakespeare's previous poems went through a number of editions, whereas the sonnets were never republished in his lifetime. And then there is another puzzle. The sonnets are entered in the Stationers' Register as "Shakespeares sonnettes", but when printed a few months later they had gained an additional long poem, attributed to Shakespeare, but very different in both style and language, entitled "A Lover's Complaint". It relates the psychological drama of a woman who has been abandoned by a sonneteering lover, yet many have found it perplexing in its archaic language and yet constant neologising:

From off a hill whose concaue wombe reworded,
A plaintfull story from a sistring vale
My spirits t'attend this doble voyce accorded,
And downe I laid to list the sad tun'd tale,
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale
Tearing of papers breaking rings a twaine,
Storming her world with sorrowes, wind and raine.

According to the OED, the poem features 26 new words or usages – "acture", "fluxiue" – coining words 14 times more frequently than the preceding sonnets, or once every 13 lines. It seems odd that Shakespeare would have followed poems whose beauty lies in their rhythm and meaning with a work that is so awkwardly neologistic. As a consequence, many do not regard "A Lover's Complaint" as being Shakespeare's work. The RSC's Complete Works excludes it from its pages. In an exhaustive stylistic analysis the Russian linguist Marina Tarlinskaja concludes that it "cannot possibly belong to 'mature' Shakespeare", and sees it as untypical of the rest of his career. And while some have interpreted the poem as a reappraisal of the "female complaint" genre – where a wronged woman reflects on her abandonment – it seems to have left most readers cold.

But when we read the poem with an open mind as to its author, another reading seems to emerge. For whereas the sonnets seem to revel in the seductive wit of the male sonneteer, "A Lover's Complaint" uses the female voice to launch a scathing attack on the poet/seducer. What's more, the individual identified by the poem seems to be less a hypothetical figure and more a living poet whose work enjoyed a popular reputation: "hee didde in the general bosome raigne / Of young, of old, and sexes both inchanted". In other words, the poem looks like an assault on Shakespeare himself. It refers to the "gouty landlord" of his works (Shakespeare had an extensive property portfolio by this time), and hints at his fathering of illegitimate children:

Heard where his plants in others Orchards grew,
Saw how deceits were guilded in his smiling,
Knew vowes, were euer brokers to defiling,
Thought Characters and words meerly but art,
And bastards of his foule adulterat heart.

The poem ends in a savage indictment of the lustful seducer: "O that infected moysture of his eye / … O that sad breath his spungie lungs bestowed." The scholar Brian Vickers concludes that it cannot be Shakespeare's: "The Latinate diction of 'A Lover's Complaint' differs in kind from Shakespeare's normal practice … relying on what I would call scholastic words, smelling of the dictionary."

It is possible that Shakespeare knew Thomas Thorpe. But we are certain that the Elizabethan lexicographer and translator John Florio did. In 1610, Thorpe dedicated his edition of Thomas Healy's Epictetus His Manuall to Florio, thanking him for securing the backing of William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, for Healey's translation of John Hall's The Discovery of A New World, entered into the Stationers' Register in January 1609, and probably edited or added to by Florio. So Florio was involved in the two works published by Thorpe either side of the Sonnets. All of which makes the volume's dedication to "WH" look very likely to have been a reference to William Herbert (who was later to fund the First Folio). But it also puts Florio in closer proximity to the Sonnets than any other likely candidate. Besides, Florio knew or had known Shakespeare, sharing a patron with him in Henry Wriothesley in the early 1590s. Florio had gone on to become one of the most important scholars of his time, translating Montaigne (1603) and Boccaccio (1620) and compiling the first proper Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes (1598).

Florio's involvement in the publication of the Sonnets would seem to be confirmed when we look at the language of "A Lover's Complaint". Along with its incessant neologising – one of Florio's literary traits – it features a host of words never used by Shakespeare and rarely or never by his contemporaries, yet which can nevertheless be found in Florio. For example, neither Shakespeare nor Marlowe nor Jonson use "storming", "defiling", "maund", "blend", "blazoned", "outwards", "gouty", "amorously", "oblations", "plenitude", "laugher", "weepingly" "vnshorne". All are used by Florio repeatedly – he uses "amorously" 19 times – and sometimes in an identical fashion: for example, both the poem and Florio write "vnshorne veluet".

And then we come to the volume's oblique dedication:


Again, Shakespeare never wrote "begetter",  "adventurer" "these in/ensuing", "wisheth the" or "promised by", and nor did Marlowe (Jonson used "adventurer" once). Florio, on the other hand, used them all.

Given these linguistic fingerprints, and his working relationship with Thorpe, it seems very possible that Florio wrote "A Lover's Complaint" and organised the publication of the Sonnets as a whole. Indeed the layout of the volume, with the poems spilling over the page, is strongly reminiscent of the pirated edition of Philip Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella" (1591), probably edited by Florio. A possible scenario is that Florio procured funding and/or the manuscript of the Sonnets via William Herbert, who, according to the First Folio, knew and admired Shakespeare. Florio then added "A Lover's Complaint" to the text, passing it off as Shakespeare's.

Why would Florio seek to attack and embarrass Shakespeare in this way? In The Genius of ShakespeareJonathan Bate speculates that the "Dark Lady" of the Sonnets might have been Florio's wife, the sister of the poet Samuel Daniel, and the daughter of a west country music teacher (sonnet 128 has her playing the virginal). However, by the time of the publication of the Sonnets in 1609 she had probably died (Florio remarried in 1617). The pirated publication of the Sonnets would therefore seem to represent Florio's revenge. This interpretation is more plausible when it becomes evident that Florio had form in this area: this was not the first time he had attacked Shakespeare in print.

In September 1594, around the time Shakespeare's sonnets were probably being composed, the London printer John Windet brought out a long, pedestrian poem entitled "Willobie his Avisa: The True Picture of a Modest Maid and of a Chaste and Constant Wife". The address to the reader was signed "Hadrian Dorrell", and claimed that the poem had been found in the papers of his friend "Henry Willobie" – names that seem a smokescreen for someone who didn't want to be known. The poem goes on to tell the story of a married woman named "Avisa" who is plagued by a number of seducers, only to chastise them for doubting her constancy. It singles out two in particular: a young, impulsive aristocrat called "Henry Willobego", and an "old player" called "WS".

It goes on to invoke notions of "comedy" and "tragedy", calling "HW" and "WS" a "new player" and an "old actor" respectively. Unsurprisingly, many have taken "Henry Willobego" to be Henry Wriothesley and "WS" to be William Shakespeare, a reading supported by the homophobic insinuations that litter the text. But who wrote the poem? A clue is given by the Italian proverbs it contains: Viui, Chi vince (Who lives, vanquishes); Ama, Chi ti ama (Love him that loves you); Il fine, fa il tutto (The end makes all); Grand Amore, grand Dolore (Great love, great sorrow); Chi la dura, la Vince (Who suffers, overcomes); and Fuggi quell piacer presente, chi ti da dolor futuro (Flee present pleasures, that afterwards bring sorrow).

In a search of 128,000 books from the 15th to the 17th century, these proverbs only occur in three other texts. Chi la dura, la Vince is used in a translation of a Dutch emblem book of 1608. But the same proverb as well as the other five are only found in two other texts, both written by the same author: John Florio, in his language manuals, his First Fruits and Second Fruits of 1578 and 1591. That it is Florio who lies behind "Dorrell" and "Willobie" is also suggested by the poem's distinctive vocabulary. It has a taste for neologisms and uses a number of rare words which, although not found in either Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson, can nevertheless be found in Florio.

In addition to the linguistic evidence, Florio also knew the printer, John Windet, from his 1590 edition of Sidney's Arcadia. But perhaps the most important factor linking Florio to the text is the fact that he knew both Wriothesley and Shakespeare – the targets of the poem's satire. Despite its ostensibly fictional status, the narrator is at pains to affirm that the story is based in reality: "Though the matter be handled poetically, yet there is some thing under these fained names and showes that hath bene done truely."

If "Willobie his Avisa" was therefore intended as a defence of his wife's chastity, the pirated sonnets and "A Lover's Complaint" would seem to be Florio's revenge for the fact that it had failed. His attack in 1594 may have been only partly successful: Wriothesley may have broken with Shakespeare, but it had not proved fatal to Shakespeare's career. But 15 years later, and with his wife now dead, Florio set about trying to destroy Shakespeare's reputation. To some extent, the plan worked. The sonnets were never republished in Shakespeare's lifetime, which suggests that they were immediately suppressed. And in the following year, Shakespeare seems to have left literary London and returned to Stratford, giving up writing soon after.

One question remains. Who was Mrs Florio, the woman at the heart of the scandal? We know from 17th-century sources that Florio married Samuel Daniel's sister. But as to further biographical facts, details are scarce. Avisa, "Willobie" tells us, was born "At wester side of Albion's isle". Samuel Daniel came from the west country, but his baptismal record has never been found. But a previously unnoticed note in William Slatyer's History of Great Britain (1621) would seem to associate Daniel with the villages of Wilton and Great Bedwyn, a few miles south of Marlborough.

This link to Wilton/Great Bedwyn would seem to tally with further clues in "Willobie" as to Avisa's roots. The poem alludes to an "ancient castle" and nearby: "a Christall well; / There doth this chast Auisa dwell." Walking a mile west from Castle Copse – the site of a Saxon castle – brings you into Wilton, with its natural springs, its name deriving from the West Saxon wielle– well. There is even a "Well Cottage" on the main street. So Samuel Daniel and "Avisa" would appear to have come from Wilton in Wiltshire. The records of St Mary's Great Bedwyn – the parish church for the area – reveal a record of the marriage of Johannes (John) Danyell to Johanne (Joan) Feldon on 23 November 1550. So this could be Samuel Daniel's father and mother. There is no mention of a Samuel Daniel in the parish records, but what about a sister?

No one knows the name of Florio's wife. Nevertheless the author of Willobie cannot resist giving a clue as to Avisa's real name. He says that he knows of one, "AD", who could "indure these, and many greater temptations with a constant mind". Obviously this would seem to allude to Avisa's maiden name – "AF" might have been a little too obvious for Florio's liking. And then in the additions made to the 1596 edition of "Willobie", the reader is warned against attempting to work out Avisa's real identity:

"If any man …  should take occasion to surmise, that the Author meant to note any woman, whose name sounds something like that name, it is too childish and too absurd, and not beseeming any deepe judgement …"

From this we deduce that her real name began with an "A", and sounded similar to "Avisa".

And so we return to St Mary's, Great Bedwyn, with its tomb to John Seymour, its 12th-century nave, and its doleful 1 ton bell. For here, on 8 February 1556, a female child was baptised whose name cannot help but invite speculation. A child born to John and Joan Danyell, but given a relatively uncommon name (ranking 58th most popular at the time). A child that grew into a woman – if she is that woman – who inspired some of the greatest writing of all time, but survives only as a series of poetic relics: her eyes, her breasts and her hair. A woman who was musically talented, but who died, along with most of her children, probably of the plague at the turn of the 16th century.

The name on the baptismal register: Avis Danyell.

• Saul Frampton is writing a book about John Florio and Shakespeare.

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The Saturday Poem: Her Birth


by Rebecca Goss

Her Birth
On the wall, petunias,
painted in Walberswick.
I call to you, say
That's a good omen,
that's a good sign,
before buckling,
gripping the hospital bed.

Walberswick is where
I holidayed, every childhood
summer. It's where we announced
the news. Sixteen months
after the effort of her birth,
we collect a faux-walnut
box from Jenkins & Sons.
Inside, a clear sachet,
weightless as dried herbs.

We drive two hundred
and eighty-one miles
for that cold, unstoppable
wave to suck the sachet clean
and I ask you, She is all right now,
isn't she? She is all right?

• From Her Birth, published by Carcanet, RRP £9.95. To order a copy for £7.96 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Rewind radio: TS Eliot's India; Twenty Minutes – The Planets; In Search of Nic Jones; Book of the Week – The Sea Inside – review


The roots of TS Eliot's quintessentially English masterpiece, The Waste Land, lie far from home – in India

TS Eliot's India: Many Gods, Many Voices Radio 4 | iPlayer

Twenty Minutes: The Planets Radio 3 | iPlayer

In Search of Nic Jones Radio 4 | iPlayer

Book of the Week: The Sea Inside Radio 4 | iPlayer

It was worth listening last week to Daljit Nagra's illuminating documentary on TS Eliot's India just to hear Eliot's supremely mannered voice on a vintage BBC recording as he recited snatches of his oblique modernist opus The Waste Land. At times it sounded like the strangest Pathé News broadcast you could ever imagine; at others it was like a recording of a seance in which a medium was enunciating the jumbled words of someone's long-dead Victorian grandfather.

Nagra, an acclaimed British poet raised in London by Punjabi parents, uncovered the Sanskrit roots of a poem generally considered to be a quintessentially English masterpiece. His voyage of discovery began with the poem's final words, the thrice repeated "shantih", meaning peace, a mantra Nagra had first heard chanted by his Sikh grandfather during his daily meditation following a long day's work. From there he traced the deep influence of the Vedas, the oldest Sanskrit literature, on Eliot's thinking and his poems, revealing how "the bank clerk in the bowler hat" studied eastern philosophy and linguistics in search of the spiritual contentment he finally found in high Anglicanism. As one Eliot scholar put it, The Waste Land is "a great nihilistic text that confirms every desperate thought you have had about the world", but it nevertheless ends on a mystical note of great stillness and hope.

The subtext of Paul Morley's characteristically discursive essay on Gustav Holst's The Planets, which preceded a live Radio 3 broadcast of the same from the Proms, was not just his late embrace of classical music but his acceptance of his own mortality. Thus, what he called "the cliched late life move from pop to classical" was not just a shift in gears but consciousness. "While pop is all about the setting-up of life, the facing forward, being psyched up, ready for action," Morley mused. "Classical is about settling down, the closing in on the idea of death."

The Planets was the first classical record he ever bought, lured as a cash-strapped teenager by the garish sci-fi cover of the Classics for Pleasure LP he picked up cheap in Woolworths. Then, it sounded "frail and pompous" compared with the outre rock music of the time, but now it's King Crimson and Frank Zappa who "sound quaint against The Planets".

I would have liked more on the mortality theme, on how classical music alerted him to what he called "the astounding pleasure of being alive on the astounding verge of not being", but it was an altogether engaging 20 minutes inside a mind that grows more curious as it grows older.

I was less taken with Laura Barton's documentary on English folk legend Nic Jones, whose appeal has always eluded me. Barton's lyrical style is an acquired taste, but she's usually a reliable guide to the more overlooked hinterlands of Americana and Brit-folk. For me, though, there was something missing in this often moving story of Jones's musical journey from cultdom into neglect and eventual rediscovery. Perhaps it was the music, which we heard only in brief snatches.

Jones has lately returned to the stage after a long hiatus following a horrific car crash while on the long route home from yet another gig. On this evidence, he remains a refreshingly wayward soul, blissfully uninterested in past glories. I have to say I liked him more than I like his music.

Philip Hoare's brilliantly meandering The Sea Inside was Radio 4's Book of the Week. Tuesday's extract was typical: a breathless recollection of the sighting of a blue whale – "Something so beautiful as to be unbelievable" – off the coast of Sri Lanka, leading into a tangentially related passage on the nearby island of Taprobane. It was purchased on a whim by the writer Paul Bowles, who lived there for two years in an ornate art deco house he had once glimpsed in a book. He was entranced by the stillness, while his wife, Jane, drank herself into oblivion through boredom. I kept listening all week, then went out and bought the book.

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Fidelio – Edinburgh festival 2013 review


Festival Theatre

Jonathan Mills, director of the international festival, has a taste, it would seem, for perversity and outrage when it comes to opera production. During his tenure we have seen the protagonists of Strauss's Capriccio tangle with the Gestapo, Handel's Admeto reworked as a mixture of butoh and Japanese horror flick, and Graun's Montezuma turned into a garbled commentary on the Americanisation of modern Mexico. His latest piece of provocation, courtesy of Opéra de Lyon, is Beethoven's Fidelio set in outer space.

The staging is the work of the Seattle-based multimedia artist Gary Hill, who, for whatever reason, has reimagined Beethoven's opera in terms of Harry Martinson's 1956 sci-fi poem Aniara about an off-course spaceship doomed to destruction unless help arrives. Bits of Martinson have been added to the text, the dialogue of which has also been rewritten. "Our spaceship is a tiny bubble in a glass of God," we are mystifyingly informed at one point. Erika Sunnegårdh's Leonore talks about the time technicians waste mending lasers. Florestan (handsome Nikolai Schukoff) is "the radical leftist" held in "the high-security unit" in "the bowels of Aniara". And so it goes on.

On stage, meanwhile, the cast are marooned in the middle of a vast video installation, as geometric shapes, spaceship interiors and footage of marching astronauts whirl round them. Rocco's gold aria gets a heavyweight anti-capitalist gloss. Pizarro (Pavlo Hunka) and Fernando (Andrew Schroeder) are transvestites, for reasons that escape me.

Unlike some of Mills's previous imports, this is at least musically cogent and impressive. There's classy conducting from Kazushi Ono; Sunnegårdh and Schukoff give performances of blazing intensity. But Hill's intervention robs Beethoven's masterpiece of its essential humanity and replaces it with unforgivable and irrelevant gimmickry. Martinson's Aniara, meanwhile, was turned into an opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl in 1959: it's no masterpiece, but its revival would have made better sense than this.

• Did you catch this gig – or any other recently? Tell us about it using #GdnGig

Rating: 2/5

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Poem of the week: Lock Me Away by Clive James


An unsettling meditation on the mental disarrangements of encroaching senility manages a rare balancing of poetry and comedy

As a poet, Clive James shares some qualities with the English "Movement" writers, and an intellectual affinity with his compatriot Peter Porter. Typically, James combines traditional, often stanzaic, structures with glitteringly modern diction. Like a new Augustan, he can spin a verse-essay to engage mental gears contemporary poetry tends to neglect. And, notwithstanding some Larkinesque melancholy, he can make us laugh. This week's poem, "Lock Me Away", reflects both his comic talent and his agility in free verse when the latter suits his purpose. It's from a collection I've re-read with inexhaustible enjoyment over the four years since publication, Opal Sunset.

Writing comic poetry is a rare skill. Performance poets (with a few honourable exceptions) seem to imagine their excruciatingly clumsy rhymes are all just part of the fun. There are beautifully-crafted comic poems-for-the-page, of course; Wendy Cope, John Fuller, Kit Wright and John Whitworth have written some of them. What's unusual, though, in English poetry, is a comic poem which doesn't depend on rhyme and metre to be funny.

"Lock Me Away" is not, of course, only comic but it fends off the potential sombreness of its theme – mental deterioration – by steady increments of the surreal. The style of delivery is anecdotal, in short, rhymeless lines shaped by the speaker's natural intonation and syntax. In structural outline, "Lock Me Up" resembles the extended joke of a highly inventive stand-up comedian – with the added connective tissue of poetry.

The inciting incident is that "NHS psychiatric test" we've all heard about, and hoped was an urban myth: the patient has to spell the word "world" backwards. I wonder how many people have failed it out of sheer panic? The rest of us should start practising now.

Taking things a stage too far, as comedy usually does, the speaker tries pronouncing the new non-word, and the phonetic mouthful (DLROW, in case you're still struggling) sparks a riff of name-association and palindromes. The test to prove mental clarity appears to shatter it. Verbal fun is never in short supply: in fact, the comic incidents themselves derive from the wordplay.

The "sudden flaring picture" of Danny La Rue as a school-boy, cheeks bulging with marshmallows, as he tries to articulate "his initial and surname" comes with sound effects which the reader is asked to imagine. (James never gives away too much information in this poem: the reader has to stay awake). Narrative and noise climax when the palindrome-maddened speaker finds the columns of a certain national newspaper are becoming "populated/By a thousand mumbling drag queens". The implication that the Guardian uses the word "world" a lot, perhaps more than other newspapers, is a flattering one, so I should make it clear that I wasn't coerced into this choice of Poem of the week.

The next DLROW-man, Georges Delerue, is treated more earnestly. There's a biographical snippet to enlighten the too-many of us who've heard his lovely melodies without ever hearing of him. The scene imagined for the composer, unlike that of the infant drag-queen, is grimly unfunny. Does it hint at the idea that medical encounters may bring humiliation or abuse?

An apparently subject-changing device, "Why do I never think/ Of a French film composer …", the rhetorical question sprouts a philosophical one: "But can I truly say I never think of it/ When I've just thought of it?"

This cleverly-confused conundrum links neatly to the fear of "going stun". The original expression, "going nuts", is an idiom that makes light of wooden-headedness, but the palindrome "going stun" is fierce and scary - like Delerue's beating-up.

The next line is the one that makes me smile out loud. A crazy gang of new signifiers emerges from the palindromic treatment of "mad, bad and dangerous to know". While "dam" might allude to dames and mild damnation, "dab" sounds fishy and limp. As for the wonderful transitive verb "to wonk", perhaps its meaning is best left to the imagination. Clearly, the Mr Bean-ish character evoked is wonk-years away from the sexy, swashbuckling Lord Byron of the original phrase. But it's the incongruous "dangerous" that makes the description so deliciously funny.

"Ward" in the ensuing line ominously resembles "word." The speaker has muddled up the two, perhaps. Now identified as the patient, he addresses, and blames, the doctor for his confusion, and the poem's distant lightning-play of dread comes closer. What "ward" denotes is obvious, but the palindromic "cloudy draw" of the Marty Robbins song seems no less sinister. Those ghost-cowboys were seriously damned souls, chasing "the devil's herd" across the sky. The "draw" (gully) they galloped through might have been a passage out of hell.

Finally, the speaker asserts his intelligence by quoting the extended palindrome sometimes described as Napoleon's shortest speech (it would have been, if only he'd said it). The association with Napoleon makes matters much worse. The patient might have attained real insanity, thanks to that sanity check earlier: he now thinks he's Napoleon. It's the stuff of mental health nightmares, but the comic muse prevails, with a punch-line that ensures the poet and his readers exit laughing.

Since Opal Sunset, Clive James has published a further original-poetry collection, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower (2012) and, very recently, a new Dante translation, The Divine Comedy. The latter's at the top of my summer reading list. Given James's technical command and powerful personal voice, I'm anticipating a virtuoso performance. In the meantime, this little purgatorial adventure in the consulting-room will brighten any spirits – even those ghost-riders in the sky.

Lock Me Away

In the NHS psychiatric test
For classifying the mentally ill
You have to spell 'world' backwards.
Since I heard this, I can't stop doing it.
The first time I tried pronouncing the results
I got a sudden flaring picture
Of Danny La Rue in short pants
With his mouth full of marshmallows.
He was giving his initial and surname
To a new schoolteacher.
Now every time I read the Guardian
I find its columns populated
By a thousand mumbling drag queens.
Why, though, do I never think
Of a French film composer
(Georges Delerue, pupil of
Darius Milhaud, composed the waltz
In Hiroshima, Mon Amour)
Identifying himself to a policeman
After being beaten up?
But can I truly say I never think of it
After I've just thought of it?
Maybe I'm going stun:
Dam, dab and dangerous to wonk.
You realise this ward you've led me into
Spelled backwards is the cloudy draw
Of the ghost-riders in the sky?
Listen to this palindrome
And tell me that it's not my ticket out.
Able was I ere I saw Elba.
Do you know who I am, Dr La Rue?

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Patti Smith to pay tribute to poems of Robert Louis Stevenson on stage


Legendary punk singer will read odes that 'spoke to her' as a child, as well as performing Allen Ginsberg's work at Edinburgh

She was the dark queen of New York's punk performance scene who lived with Robert Mapplethorpe, hung out with William Burroughs and was chatted up by Allen Ginsberg – who mistook her for a boy.

Now Patti Smith has disclosed an unexpected enthusiasm for the children's poems of Robert Louis Stevenson – verses such as The Land of Nod, My Bed is a Boat and Whole Duty of Children.

"I can't imagine my childhood without him. His poems were my companions, my friends," she said. The singer, songwriter, poet and artist recalled her early days as a "very sickly child".

"I had pneumonia, I contracted TB, scarlet fever, every childhood disease. And my two favourite books were [William Blake's] Songs of Innocence and Experience, and Stevenson's poems .

"Bed in Summer, The Land of Nod – all of these poems I read over and over as a child. They spoke to me. Robert Louis Stevenson was also a sickly child who knew what it was like to hear other children playing outside his window.

"Not only that, but the dreamscapes that we get into as children."

Smith was speaking before a performance at the Edinburgh international festival of poems by Allen Ginsberg with composer Philip Glass. She said she also planned to perform some of Stevenson's poems "just for my own pleasure – to read him in the place of his birth".

She described how Ginsberg had tempted her back into performing after nearly two decades. "I left performing because I fell in love, got married, and decided to live simply and raise our children.

"When my husband died [in December 1994] I was devastated and I had no thought of performing again until, in late January, I got a call from Allen Ginsberg." He asked her to read at a benefit for a Buddhist charity.

"He said basically I should turn my mourning into dancing – let your loved one go and live your life. And that is how I re-entered the world of performance: through Allen, and through the spoken word."

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Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury – review


Giving equal weight to the man and his work, this is the perfect introduction to a parson-poet who has fallen out of fashion

Biography is one of the most marketable genres of our age, and literary criticism is not. It is therefore a bold move for Allen Lane to publish a book that fulfils its subtitle so exactly. Herbert's life does not superficially offer much for the biographer: no wars, no quarrels, a happy marriage, disengagement from the religious controversies of the day in favour of an unwavering adherence to the Church of England. What made him extraordinary in an age of colourful characters was the poetry, and that is accordingly at the centre of this book.

Converting it into biography is not, however, at all easy, as it is rarely possible to correlate individual poems with external events. When John Drury, chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford, couples the life and the poetry, it is in order to get inside not only Herbert's mind but his craftsmanship, to introduce his readers to the work as well as the man. Alongside his narrative of outward events he offers a running commentary on a full half of the 173 poems that make up the 1633 collection, The Temple, many of them quoted in full, plus four of the Latin poems. Readers who are tempted into the book by its focus on the life will finish with something far richer than more conventional biographies offer.

George Herbert was born in 1593 to a minor branch of the aristocratic Herbert family, probably in Montgomery in mid-Wales. His father died when he was three, and a few years later his mother moved to London, where she ran a household distinguished for its hospitality towards intellectuals. John Donne addressed some poems to her, and was to preach her funeral sermon. George was sent to Westminster School at the time when the great preacher and linguist Lancelot Andrewes was in charge. One of the translators of the King James Bible, Andrewes was a master of style, especially of the "terse and urgent" short clause. TS Eliot was an admirer ("A cold coming [they] had of it … " is lifted from one of his sermons); Drury demonstrates too how much Herbert could have learned from him.

A distinguished career at Trinity College, Cambridge, culminated in Herbert's appointment as university orator in 1620. The post required him to be the public face of the university, in charge of its formal Latin correspondence and orations. It was a role that could have led to a good position in royal service. Instead, he allowed his deputy to take over much of the work, while he himself withdrew, perhaps because of his recurrent ill health, perhaps to try to resolve his increasingly urgent personal dilemma as to whether to pursue a career that would satisfy his worldly ambitions, or to enter the priesthood.

In 1629 he married, and not long after he accepted the living of Bemerton, close to Salisbury and the cathedral music that he loved, but frustratingly distant from the Anglican community that his friend Nicholas Ferrar had founded at Little Gidding. He died in his parsonage in 1633.

Drury integrates the poems and his commentary skilfully into this narrative, operating on the principle that "the circumstances of a poet's life and times", together with the habits of thought and feeling that characterise them, "are the soil in which the work is rooted". So the introduction, on "Herbert's World", embraces his theory of poetry and the range of his references to the worlds of business and pleasure.

A number of the poems recorded in the early Williams manuscript allow for an exploration of how Herbert's poetry developed. His parents' tomb invites the poem on "Church Monuments"; his own death is the context for a discussion of his magnificent "Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing", a skeleton whose skull he re-imagines as the eggshells that "fledged souls left behind". An account of the annual liturgical cycle makes space for his poetry on Christmas, the Passion and Easter.

A discussion of his followers, in particular Henry Vaughan, suggests a comparison of poems that imitated his own. And for those works that haven't fitted anywhere else, there is a final, catch-all chapter called "The bread of faithful speech" that brings together 14 more. That favourite of Simone Weil's (and of William Empson's), "Love III" – "Love bade me welcome" – is a recurrent touchstone from the first page, but every chapter is given its share of his finest poems.

Herbert is at once a master of simplicity and extraordinarily complex. Many of the difficulties for modern readers come from unfamiliarity with matters that Herbert's contemporaries took for granted, and Drury is expert at summarising the basics needed for understanding each poem. His commentary assumes little advance knowledge, and he rarely omits any essential information that some readers might need (one instance is the image of human flesh as "but the glass, which holds the dust / That measures all our time": an hourglass, not an unwashed beer glass). Biblical, liturgical and classical references are explained, unfamiliar words are glossed, the processes of alchemy described, and the difference between an iamb and a trochee spelled out. The last, indeed, proves especially important: the poems show an exceptionally subtle mastery of rhythm within simple metrical frameworks, and Drury will not let us overlook either (though his discussion of Latin metrics is a little odd). The Complete Poetry that Drury is now editing for Penguin Classics should fill in the gaps and provide yet more riches.

A few decades ago, some knowledge of Herbert's poetry was a standard element of cultural literacy. His insistence on both inward and outward spirituality is scarcely fashionable now, though even atheist readers find him deeply attractive: Empson was a particular admirer, and I have never had a student who resisted him. Christian spirituality is perhaps seen as too politically divisive, or too unfamiliar, for him to be read much in schools, and he has tended to disappear behind the more obvious attractions of that teenage crowd-pleaser Donne. Donne writes of sex and passion, and is magnificent on the terrors of damnation; Herbert writes of love and spiritual dryness, and can positively look forward to the Day of Judgment as a time for the reuniting of friends.

It is hard to imagine a better book for anyone, general reader or 17th-century aficionado or teacher or student, newly embarking on Herbert. This is the kind of literary criticism that enables an immediate appreciation of the poems by way of minimal extras. Its preferred adjective is "bright", one of Herbert's own favourites. The title comes from a recorded remark of his, that the memory of having helped a poor man with a fallen horse would supply him with a better "music at midnight" than the real thing that he made with his friends.

It isn't easy to avoid hagiography in writing such a life (the earliest, Izaak Walton's of 1670, for example), but Drury can at least let the poetry carry most of the weight. Ours is too cynical an age to believe in sanctity. Without ever saying so, this book is a reminder that it may be possible.

• Helen Cooper's Shakespeare and the Medieval World is published by Arden Shakespeare.

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