Gifts to share

It is Shakespeare’s birthday (or thereabouts) and in looking for some gifts to share I came across this article on the BBC News website which discusses a new book ‘William Shakespeare Beyond Doubt’ edited by Professor Stanley Wells and Dr Paul Edmondson both of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which aims to defend the question of authorship. It is a topic which has been discussed on this blog, see Why Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and no doubt will not end the debate.

There are so many wonderful digital resources available for Shakespeare that a simple internet search could result in getting quite lost for days. In a very brief search this morning I found:

Shakespeare Birth Place Trust with lots of information and resources for everyone, including a free course Getting to know Shakespeare.

The RSC has lots of educational material on its website, some free for use in the classroom

Oxford’s own Bodleian Libraries Sprint for Shakespeare site where you can leaf through the original printed pages of the First Folio, and find cameos from well-known Shakespeare lovers, and from researchers and experts who work on this book.

Open Source Shakespeare attempts to be the best free Web site containing Shakespeare’s complete works. It is intended for scholars, thespians, and Shakespeare lovers of every kind.

And of course you will find a wealth of inspirational resources (ebooks, lectures, short talks and more) on our own, all of which are free for reuse in education

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30 Great Myths about Shakespeare

Great Writers Inspire supporter, Dr Emma Smith, has co-authored a new book, 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare, with her University of Oxford colleague Professor Laurie Maguire. From the publisher’s website “Exploring and exploding 30 popular myths about the great playwright, this illuminating new book evaluates all the evidence to show how historical material—or its absence—can be interpreted and misinterpreted, and what this reveals about our own personal investment in the stories we tell”. The book is available from the Wiley-Blackwell website and all good booksellers.

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Open Education Week 2013

Open Education Week is taking place from 11-15 March 2013 online and in locally hosted events around the world. The purpose of Open Education Week is to raise awareness of the open education movement and opportunities it creates in teaching and learning worldwide. Participation in all events and use of all resources are free an open to everyone. Find out more from
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World Book Day

Today is World Book Day –  a big celebration of reading and books when millions of vouchers are given out to help get kids into reading. If you don’t get a voucher today, don’t worry because you can enjoy thousands of eBooks for free at 

Search in the Library for an author or title of your choice or if you’d like more context, explore the collections in Writers and Themes. All materials are available free for use in education worldwide. Pass it on.

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Writers with an image problem: William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson

In the contemporary world, we are bombarded with images from our laptops and televisions, on billboards and in magazines. These images may be advertising something, but often they seem only to advertise a way of life, a celebrity, unobtainable to all but a select few. Celebrities are more recognizable in some cases then our distant relatives, and our view of these famous figures is distorted on the one hand by extreme Photoshopping which makes them more ‘beautiful’, and on the other by candid snaps which expose their all-too-flawed humanity in gossip magazines’s ‘circles of shame’.

Writers are not often the victims of paparazzi attention in today’s world, yet the way in which we ‘see’ writers, especially historical writers, is often conditioned by external cultural and historical forces in ways that we might not at first recognize.

Shakespeare, possibly the greatest literary celebrity in the English language, exists in our visual field through a variety of representations from the engraving by Martin Droeshout on the front of the First Folio to his portrayal by Joseph Fiennes in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love. His must surely be a face we might be expected to know well, although you may be surprised to learn that arguments are still ongoing about the authenticity of Shakespeare’s portraits.

William Shakespeare – ‘Chandos portrait’. (After a previous owner, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos). The first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856.

The Chandos portrait (above) is, according to the National Portrait Gallery, the only verified portrait of Shakespeare painted from life. The Cobbe Portrait (below) was unveiled in 2009, and it also supposedly depicts the famous bard painted from life. The fierce debate which continues about the authenticity, provenance and likeness of these portraits shows that the image of a writer is not simply a mug shot for a book cover, but a matter of some importance to generations of scholars and readers.

William Shakespeare? – Cobbe portrait, an early Jacobean panel painting. So-called because of its ownership by Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765)).

The poet Emily Dickinson is also a writer with something of an image issue. The only verified photograph of the reclusive poet is a 1847 daguerreotype showing the poet in her late teens. This was around three years before she even began writing poetry. Her earliest known poem is  ‘Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine, / Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!’, dated 4th March 1850 and published in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1852.

Emily Dickinson, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

A later image from 1859, purportedly showing Dickinson with her friend Kate Scott Turner, has been subjected to scholarly enquiry, computer work, ophthalmological report, and even comparison to 1850s fashion and textiles. It seems probable that it is Dickinson, so some 150 years after the photograph was taken, new eyes are seeing this Dickinson for the first time.

Emily Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner, 1859 (?) – Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Writers should be known for their writing before their face or clothing, and for the imagery of their work rather than that captured by a camera lens or painter’s brush. However, author portraits accompany their work through time, they are something else that the writer has left behind, and readers can be forgiven for attempting to interpret their enigmas as fervently as they do the literature in question.

If you want to find out more about William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, Great Writers Inspire has free collections which include podcasts, ebooks, articles, and more created and curated by the University of Oxford.

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Reading Recommendation: Alexander Pope’s ‘Dunciad’

In this guest blog, Joseph Hone, an Oxford DPhil student, argues for the pertinence of one of the ‘most unread literary masterpieces’ – Alexander Pope’s Dunciad.

Alexander Pope

Portrait of Alexander Pope, oil on canvas. c. 1742. By Jean-Baptiste van Loo (1684-1745)

Have you ever warned somebody that a little learning is a dangerous thing, or that fools rush in where angels fear to tread? Have you ever said that to err is human, to forgive divine, or observed that as the twig is bent, so the tree’s inclined? If so, you have been quoting Alexander Pope. This is hardly surprising; after Tennyson and Shakespeare, Pope is the third most prolific writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. What is surprising, however, is that most of us do not even realize it. Though the most celebrated poet of the eighteenth century, Pope has received a tough press over the last two hundred years. According to Wordsworth his verse was more delicate than grand, and in the twentieth century his heroic couplets were almost universally deemed to have aged badly. Similarly, his critique of ‘low-culture’ and ‘Grub Street dunces’ whiffs of snobbery to those not steeped in the social and political context of the period. No wonder critics like James Reeves, in his book The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope (1976), have argued that Pope’s poetical talents have been wildly over estimated while his personal failings grossly overlooked. Such prejudice continues to blight the teaching of poetry to this day. Most school leavers have never even heard of the man (a little learning is a dangerous thing, indeed), whilst undergraduates consistently seem to avoid the period as much as they can. For all of the neglect and disdain, Pope remains an excellent poet. His evocation of early eighteenth-century life, from the sordid scribbling underclasses to the powdered wigs of society beaus, remains as energized and intimate as if it had been written weeks rather than centuries ago. There will always be people who refuse to read Pope; this blog is an attempt to save you from becoming one of them.

Simultaneously the most inaccessible and evocative of Pope’s works is the Dunciad. Amongst the most unread of literary masterpieces, the Dunciad provides a reading experience quite unlike anything before or since. The difficulties of the poem begin with the murkiness of its textual state. The first Dunciad was published in 1728 as a poem in three books, before being republished in 1729 covered with mock-scholarly notes by the pedantic caricature, Scriblerus. Some years later, in 1742, a fourth book of the Dunciad was published before the complete four-book mock-epic appeared in 1743. So which Dunciad do we read? The final edition of 1743 provides the most complete narrative, and in its recent form, edited by Valerie Rumbold, is the most readable it has ever been. Across the four books of his mock-epic, Pope tells the story of Bays – a caricature of theatre manager and poet laureate Colley Cibber. In reality Cibber was a prurient manager, but a dreadful poet. In his imaginative transformation he is the son and heir of the goddess Dulness, come to claim London as his rightful inheritance. The city, filled with lowlife hacks and poets, willingly supplicates to the new king, celebrating his return. These celebrations contain some of the most vibrant lines of poetry from the century, revelling in appalled delight at the scene. In a wonderfully scatological episode, the poets engage in celebratory games, challenging one another to dive the deepest into London’s sewers and piss the highest. It is the pirate publisher, Edmund Curll, who wins the competition, despite his genitals burning from venereal disease – a symptom of his notorious infidelity in printing texts:

Thro’ half the heav’ns he pours th’exalted urn;
His rapid waters in their passage burn.
Swift as it mounts, all follow with their eyes:
Still happy Impudence obtains the prize. (2.183-86)

Even now, the sewer-diving and the pissing contest are quite shocking, but they are full of cutting wit and derision. The dunce poets strive to sink into the depths of bathos rather than aspire to the profound; they have an ability to produce material from nothing. Like their bodily evacuate, their literary produce is vacuous – full of nothing. Characteristically, Pope revels in that which he deplores. The world of Grub Street, a real place at that time as well as a metaphor, becomes a shady refuge of appalling and ludicrous creative energies. Pope takes your hand and leads you through this poetical menagerie; there is a shock lurking behind every corner.

However, much of the true art of the Dunciad lies in its annotations, prolegomena, and appearance. Any English student that has come into contact with a masterfully edited critical edition – Alastair Fowler’s Paradise Lost, or Harold Love’s Rochester, for instance – will recognize the form of the page, with a handful of lines floating above the thick-set mass of critical commentary. Unlike the editions of Milton or Rochester, however, Scriblerus’s notes (along with Bentley’s in 1743) contain no discretion, scholarship, or critical sagacity. Rather, they are filled with conjecture and bad judgement, as empty as the ghostly dunces of the poem. The circular arguments and foolish pedantry of these dunces reminds us what not to do in our own critical work.

The Dunciad represents the jewel in Pope’s crown, but it by no means stands alone. His translations of Homer are rightfully canonical in their own respect, as are wonderful satires like The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Criticism, and Peri Bathous. If, however, you only read one text of Pope’s, make it the Dunciad. I urge you not only to plunder it for its vibrant picture of early eighteenth-century London, but for what it tells us about the now. There is a reason for Pope’s domination of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: the sentiments of his poetry survive beyond the moment. The Grub Street world of hacks and dunces lives on in the modern spheres of journalism and politics, whilst the temporal nature of cheap print and ephemera has boomed with the internet revolution. Let’s face it, the Dunciad has never been so pertinent.

Joseph Hone

Dunciad Book II 1760 illustration, showing the Goddess and poets asleep. 1760 Collected (Warburton) edition of Pope, London, Vol V. Artist F. Hayman, Engraver C. Grignion, Scanner & uploader Steven J. Plunkett. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dunciad Book II 1760 illustration, showing the Goddess and poets asleep. 1760 Collected (Warburton) edition of Pope, London, Vol V. Artist F. Hayman, Engraver C. Grignion, Scanner & uploader Steven J. Plunkett. (Wikimedia Commons)

You can download and read the Dunciad, and other works by Alexander Pope for free by finding them in our ebook library. Go to and search for ‘Dunciad’ in the title or ‘Pope’ in the author name.

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Alfred Lord Tennyson, first Baron Tennyson (1809-1892)

Erin Lafford, a DPhil student, introduces the life and work of the Victorian poet and Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson in this guest blog post.

Lord-tennysonTennyson was born on 6th August, 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, to a large family that experienced many financial and emotional problems.  His father’s ongoing rivalry with his brother, who was favoured in his receipt of the family inheritance, combined with a complex  family medical history of epilepsy and mental disorder posed various threats; the notorious “black blood” of the Tennysons circulated around many of the Tennyson children, Alfred included.  Many of his poems are marked by a sense of loss, depression, and despair (‘Mariana’ (1830), ‘The Lotos-Eaters’’ (1832), and ‘Ulysses’ (1842)) whilst some (‘The Princess’ (1847), In Memoriam A. H. H (1850), and ‘Maud’ (1854) ), were composed during his own period of emotional breakdown from 1844-45.

Despite this turbulent context, Tennyson’s early years were marked by his fledgling experiments with poetry, and he published a small volume, Poems by Two Brothers (1827), with his brothers Charles and Frederick.  This early poetic success continued whilst Tennyson was studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his poem Timbuctoo was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 1829.  During his time there, Tennyson became involved with the Apostles, a young intellectual society.  As a result, he forged a strong personal connection with Arthur Hallam (1811-1833), whose sudden death from a stroke whilst travelling in Vienna devastated the young Tennyson, and became the subject of his greatest known poem, In Memoriam A.H.H

Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) was Tennyson’s first major volume of poetry.  It contains such key works  as ‘Mariana’, ‘The Kraken’, his pair of lyrics ‘The Mermaid’ and ‘The Merman’, ‘Supposed Confessions of a Second Rate Sensitive Mind’ as well as many other works in ode or sonnet form.  His subsequent publication, Poems (1832), contains the well-known ‘The Lady of Shalott’, as well as ‘Enone’, ‘The Palace of Art’ and ‘The Lotos-Eaters’. Arthur Hallam’s review of these volumes did much for recognition of Tennyson as a poet, as he dubbed him the ‘poet of sensation’ for his ability to capture states of emotion and feeling through his lyrically affective language and rhythm.  His 1842 volume Poems contains ‘Ulysses’, Tennyson’s famous and moving dramatic monologue written from the perspective of the aged king coming to the end of his role and contemplating the meaning of his life’s achievements, as well as anticipating the end of life with courage and resolve: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.  This adoption of a well-known historic, literary or mythical persona in order to contemplate ideas of ageing, station, death, and religion is a frequent technique of Tennyson’s, and his 1842 volume contains other important dramatic monologues such as ‘Saint Simeon Stylites’, ‘Tithonus’ and ‘Tiresias’.  Use of the dramatic monologue allows Tennyson to adopt the tone and expression of his persona in order to emphasise the themes and questions he explores in these poems.  St Simeon Stylites’ repetitive, exclamatory religious proclamations, “O Jesus, if thou wilt not save my soul, / Who may be saved? Who is it may be saved”, for example, convey a personal state of pain and religious anxiety as Tennyson simultaneously questions the Saint’s sacrificial self-harm as a route to experiencing God through his violent depiction of bodily injury: “And both my thighs are rotted with the dew; / Yet cease I not to clamor and to cry, / While my stiff spine can hold my weary head, / Till all my limbs drop piecemeal from the stone”.  Tennyson’s most well-received poetic persona by his Victorian readership is his portrayal of King Arthur and the other knights of the Round Table in his epic ‘Idylls of the King’.  Not only did this subject material appeal to Victorian readers who would have been well-acquainted with these tales, it also permitted Tennyson, through the fall of Arthur, a Christ-like figure, to explore the religious crisis that developed during the nineteenth-century: “The old order changeth yielding place to new, / And God fulfils himself in many ways, / Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. / Comfort thyself; what comfort is in me?” (‘The Passing of Arthur’).

This profound sense of loss, change, and religious anxiety runs through In Memoriam.  T.S Eliot described Tennyson’s famous elegy as “the concentrated diary of a man confessing himself.  It is a diary of which we have to read every word”.  Through his journal-like series of elegiac stanzas, Tennyson skilfully moves from his private grief to public issues, providing a personal elegy that is capable of speaking to all who have experienced loss: “That loss is common would not make / My own less bitter, rather more: / Too common! Never morning wore / To evening, but some heart did break”.  His ABBA stanza structure and steady, iambic rhythm that pervades through each section provides a comforting framework from which Tennyson represents many fragmentary and jarring states and experiences.  His reaction to the geological and evolutionary scientific progressions occurring around him are vividly expressed in section 56, as Tennyson rails against a nature revealed as “red in tooth and claw” and careless of the “type” of a human life that valued the existence of God.  The elegy has also become known as one of Tennyson’s most thoughtful considerations on the ‘use’ of poetry and how effective it is an conveying such strong emotional states as grief and loss: “I sometimes hold it half a sin / To put in words the grief I feel; / For words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the Soul within”.  It is this ability to bring these multiple themes and ideas into one affective whole that marks In Memoriam as one of Tennyson’s greatest works.  It even earned him the position of Poet Laureate in 1850, a testament to the significance of his poetry during his own lifetime and a marker of its potential to resonate with us still.

Erin Lafford

You can read Maud: a monodrama…  for free from the Oxford Text Archive. You can find other free works by Tennyson from Project Gutenberg.

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