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Leonard Cohen’s Zen Vision

Leonard Cohen’s Zen Vision


Laurence Coupe



Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester: MUP, 2007), pp 182-9

This discussion of Cohen’s work comes about halfway through  the final chapter of the book: ‘ “Eco-Zen”, or “a heaven in a wild flower”: from Gary Snyder to Nick Drake’.

The term ‘Eco-Zen’ was coined by Alan Watts, who is the subject of the first chapter of the book.

The book was obviously written long before Cohen’s death; however, I have not changed present tense to past for the purposes of this extract.




We have used the phrase ‘Eco-Zen’ to characterise [Gary] Snyder; we are testing how far it might apply to certain songwriters, while simultaneously glossing it with Blake’s hope of seeing ‘a heaven in a wild flower’, and the tensions involved in such a prospect. [Jim] Morrison and [Joni] Mitchell speak in defence of nature, and of those cultures which revere it. They see nature itself as sacred. With our third songwriter, the ecological emphasis is not so insistent: rather, we may infer a broadly reverential view of nature informed by both mythology and mysticism. There again, he is notoriously difficult to categorise, and it would be advisable not to try. I am referring to Leonard Cohen.


Superficially, his kind of art seems to form a contrast with the Beats, given his taste for formality and ironic restraint. His work, however, must be of interest to those who take seriously the ideas we have explored throughout this book. In particular, I would emphasise his ability to bring to bear on his spiritual interests the power of Zen. It is this more than anything that links him with Snyder. That said, Cohen’s approach to Zen is very much his own.


Cohen is a Canadian poet and novelist who extended his talents to songwriting in the late sixties, for which he has been mainly known ever since. When his Poems1956-1968 appeared, Kenneth Rexroth, the poet admired by all the Beats and the man who gave his blessing to the Beat movement in the mid-fifties, wrote: ‘Leonard Cohen’s poetry and song constitute a big breakthrough … This is certainly the future of poetry… It is the voice of a new civilization.’[i] Moreover, Cohen began his career reciting poetry to a jazz accompaniment in Montreal in the fifties, inspired by the example of Jack Kerouac; he subsequently moved to New York, where he made sure to attend all the Beat performances he could.[ii]


Inevitably, Cohen was touched by the Beat Zen phenomenon. It was through the Beats that he became interested in gaining an eastern perspective on the faith of his childhood, namely Judaism. That said, he was equally preoccupied with, even obsessed by, the figure of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, his approach to Christianity was in terms of myth: his first volume of poetry was called Let Us Compare Mythologies, a title which gives us a flavour of his spirit of sincere but scrupulous enquiry. His preoccupation only deepened during the sixties. Towards the end of that decade Cohen declared: ‘Our natural vocabulary is Judeo-­Christian. That is our blood myth… We have to rediscover the crucifixion. [It] will again be understood as a universal symbol… It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.’[iii]


One cannot accuse Cohen of having only a passing interest in this subject. Twenty years later, he reflected on his view of Jesus: ‘He may be the most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of this earth. Any guy who said “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek” has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness.’[iv] What is intriguing is that he seems to think of Jesus in terms similar to Kerouac’s, identifying him implicitly with the fellaheen [the dispossessed of the given civilization, who are the true spiritual visionaries: see Chapter 2]. Again, there is the preoccupation with pain, and the appeal to the example of Jesus as a means of comprehending it. However, the difference between Cohen’s fascination with Jesus and Kerouac’s is twofold. For Kerouac, it comes out of his Christian upbringing and is associated with his idea of himself as a ‘crazy Catholic mystic’, whereas Cohen is interested in trans-cultural iconography. For Kerouac, the figure of Jesus becomes more and more important as he himself turns away from Zen, whereas for Cohen, Jesus remains a constant referent, which he finds to be wholly compatible with his interest in Zen. For him, Zen is the perfect way of realizing the potential he early on finds in Judaeo-Christianity. There is, then, an obvious affinity with Snyder, namely Zen itself; but there is also a contrast, since Snyder consistently associates Biblical faith with the oppression of indigenous communities and the exploitation of the earth.


That does not mean that Cohen is unaware of such associations. His second novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), an ambitious work of metafiction which moves between different times and places, and which employs multiple narration, centres on the historical figure of Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-80).[v] She was the daughter of a Christian Algonquin woman who had been captured by the Iroquois and then married a Mohawk chief. An epidemic of smallpox left Catherine orphaned; the disease also left her face severely scarred and badly affected her eyesight. Baptized at the age of twenty by Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, she was ostracized by her fellow-Indians. She fled, wandering 200 miles by foot to a Native American village in Canada which had adopted the Christian faith. Taking a vow of chastity, she acquired a reputation for asceticism and also for an ability to perform miracles. As she was dying, her scars miraculously vanished. After her death, her grave became a site of pilgrimage; she was regarded by many as a saint, and was subsequently beatified (thought not canonized) by the Catholic church.


Cohen’s choice of main character gives him, then, plenty of opportunity to explore the connection between Christian myth and Native American myth, and to investigate the way in which the values of a civilization may be internalized – but also intensified – by a colonized people. The unnamed ‘I’ of the novel is, by no coincidence, an anthropologist with a special interest in Native Americans: we learn a good deal about their myths, rituals and beliefs, which are given just as much status as the Catholic doctrines which are also explicated. Interestingly, the historical Catherine is known as the (unofficial) patron saint of ecologists, of people in exile and of people persecuted for their beliefs. Cohen in his fictionalized account gives full reign to the possibilities opened up thereby.


Returning to the question of myth, we note that in Beautiful Losers there is a comprehensive attempt to ‘compare mythologies’. Apart from the allusions to Indian and Christian myths, the novel makes an implicit identification between Catherine and the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility, Isis, who was believed to have control over both the health of the earth and the fate of the soul in the afterlife. Isis it was who restored her husband, Osiris, after he had been dismembered, and ensured his annual revival in parallel with the cycle of vegetation. Catherine too is credited with a capacity to restore earth, body and soul to a state of harmony. A more obvious association is made between Catherine and the Virgin Mary: surrendering herself to God’s will, she is granted mystical insight.


The very title of the novel is worth dwelling on. The ‘beautiful losers’ are those who achieve that spiritual beauty known as beatitude by surrendering the whole idea of a separate self; in the perspective of materialism, they are absurd, but under the aspect of eternity they are saintly. They voluntarily become victims or scapegoats, suffering on behalf of others so that they too may be granted spiritual release. In this sense, the most obvious ‘beautiful loser’ is Jesus Christ, crucified and buried as a criminal but bringing redemption by way of his resurrection. Extending the idea, we may remind ourselves that the figure who is beaten down by civilization is for the Beat writers the one who is most likely to attain, and show the way towards, the beatific vision. We sense this in the paradoxical titles of some of Kerouac’s novels, which Cohen’s Beautiful Losers neatly mirrors: The Dharma Bums, for example, or Desolation Angels. We might think also of that key phrase from [Allen] Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Howl’: ‘angelheaded hipsters’.


The paradox contained in such phrases and titles takes us to the heart of Zen itself. The Zen lunatic, the holy fool who abandons all material security to wander on ‘the Way’, is the model for all such figures. One must give up the idea of ‘I’ in order to have access to the reality of ‘the One’. This idea clearly fascinates Cohen, and his fascination only gets more intense as he proceeds. The manifestation of the sacred in the profane is his primary concern, and his major songs articulate this possibility in their various ways.


Though we have stated that Cohen’s devotion to Zen is an implicit constant, we should take account of his increasingly explicit association with ‘official’ Zen. We can trace this quite simply, from his meeting in the early 1970s with a monk called Joshu Sasaki Roshi, with whom he began studying, to his financing of the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, near Los Angeles, and finally to his ordination as a Zen monk in 1996. Cohen has always denied, however, that his dedication to Zen practice has meant commitment to a new kind of faith, quite other than Judaism or Christianity: ‘I never really felt I was studying something called Zen. I never thought I was looking for a new religion. The religion I had was fine. So it was something else’ (1993). Again: ‘There are Jewish practitioners in the Zen movement. I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on your position. As I have received it from my teacher, there is no conflict because there is no prayerful worship and there is no discussion of a deity in Zen’ (1994). Or again: ‘I’ve never been interested in a new religion… I just know that [Roshi] has provided a space for me to do the kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in other places’ (1994).[vi]


It is probably fair to say, then, that no matter which period of Cohen’s work we choose, we find evidence of his Zen instinct, if by that we mean the urge to celebrate the here and now as if it were infinity and eternity. Take the first song on his first album, Leonard Cohen (1968). ‘Suzanne’ begins as a celebration of an artistic, eccentric woman that Cohen knew and admired during his young adulthood in Montreal: she had an apartment by the St Lawrence River, near to the chapel of Our Lady of the Harbour, which is dedicated to sailors. These anecdotal circumstances make the account of visiting her and being served tea by her all the more vivid. But the central idea of the song only becomes evident in the second verse, which refers to Jesus as a ‘sailor’ who waited watching on his ‘lonely wooden tower’ (his cross, presumably) before addressing ‘only drowning men’ (those in acute spiritual need). Suzanne and Jesus each offers a sacred gift: a capacity for revelation. The world refuses it: as Cohen points out to Jesus, ‘You sank beneath their wisdom like a stone.’ But the potential for revelation remains. The third verse has Suzanne as a guide around the harbour, showing us ‘where to look among the garbage and the flowers’, and alerting us to the ‘heroes in the seaweed’. The song, then, is a classic instance of the manifestation of the sacred in the profane: it is one of the most powerful instances of the beatific vision for which one could ask.[vii]


The fact that the imagery of the song is insistently Biblical does not detract from its Zen quality. Rather, it intensifies it, Jesus being the archetypal ‘beautiful loser’ who obtains beatitude precisely by immersing himself in the suffering of this world and thereby sanctifying it. Again, in a later song from Various Positions (1984), ‘If It Be Your Will’, Cohen prays to the God of the Jews and the Christians. He seems to be espousing an orthodox monotheism, the basis of a doctrine of salvation for the righteous; but the imagery simultaneously celebrates the suffering sinners. He speaks for all those ‘on this broken hill’, dressed in ‘our rags of light’; and asks that ‘all these burning hearts in hell’ be made ‘well’ at last.[viii] A plea for mercy from a God of justice, the song dwells chiefly on the frailty of humanity; but paradoxically, this frailty is the very source of its spirituality. Only in the depths of the profane does the sacred need to be made manifest. The subtlety of such a vision has been preferred by more than one commentator to the more explicit, extensive ruminations of a Ginsberg. Here is one such judgement:

[U]nlike many Jews who found refuge in Buddhism (e.g. Allen Ginsberg), [Cohen] never lost his monotheistic convictions; indeed, they appear to have become stronger over the years… Ginsberg’s dependencies were more often than not drug-induced and escapist. Suffice it here to note that [Cohen] did not force monotheistic (i.e. one­-god) doctrines; he did not command theistic (i.e. personal-god) beliefs; nevertheless, those with ears to hear — and many without — could not fail to catch the point, ‘directly and immediately’; not out of contrivance or slick devising, but honestly — so that ‘everybody knows what’s going on.’ It was only through that ‘gateway’ that he could enter, and emerge: with a meaningful word. The songs are ‘mystical’; parabolic in their ability to say things at different levels: the sacred and the secular, the human and the divine; projecting the heavenly by means of promoting the earthly; ‘passionate romance’ and spiritual truth: an alpha and an omega – ‘understanding’ now at its peak.[ix]



Another commentator celebrates Cohen’s ability to use Biblical language while articulating a beatific vision that transcends religious categorization:

[M]uch of his life has been spent with his nose in the scriptures, whether they be Hebrew, Christian or Eastern, and has conducted his creativ­ity in the form of a meditation, a search for metaphysical meaning, whatever the implications of his more earth-bound predilections. … Cohen’s recent compositions may well be, as Bob Dylan so shrewdly observed, ‘like prayers’, but the truth is that Cohen’s songs have been painted with a Judaeo-ecclesiastical patina throughout his musical evolution. Across the panoply of his hundred songs, from ‘Story of Isaac’ to ‘Anthem’, via ‘Who By Fire’ and ‘The Law’, there are many more direct examples of his use of the nominally religious form. [x]


This same commentator is impressed by Cohen’s capacity for finding the sacred in the profane: ‘It is Cohen’s ability to locate the redemptive and the spiri­tually profound within prosaic and sometimes visceral lyrical contexts that gives his work the poignant astringency in which his fans revel and at which his detractors balk.’[xi]


One of the songs mentioned above is worth quoting briefly: ‘Anthem’, from The Future (1992). But first we should consider the significance of that title. The OED defines ‘anthem’ as follows: ‘an elaborate choral composition usually based on a passage of scripture for church use’. Cohen would seem to be deliberately subverting that idea, for his song is non-scriptural and non-liturgical; it is, indeed, modest and reflective. It does not make pronouncements in justification of a religious doctrine. Rather, it looks to the minor beauties of this world for revelation: ‘The birds they sang at the break of day/ Start again, I heard them say.’ Having then proceeded to address the horrors of the world – wars, corrupt governments, and so forth – it laments, in language derived from Christian iconography, but not confined to it, that the ‘holy dove’ will always be ‘caught’ and ‘bought and sold’ again. However, the refrain of the song tells us that, despite this, there remains the possibility of spiritual freedom if only we can learn to value profane time and space as if they were sacred, and not torture ourselves in the pursuit of a distant, abstract perfection: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring./ Forget your perfect offering./ There is a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.’[xii] This is pure Zen, comprehending in its simplicity all the subtleties of Judaism and Christianity. We understand now what Cohen meant in the interview quoted, when he said: ‘I’ve never been interested in a new religion… I just know that [Roshi] has provided a space for me to do the kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in other places’ (1994).[xiii][p 40]


‘Dance with the Lord’ is a neat phrase by which to indicate Cohen’s wish to honour the monotheism of his own culture, while being open to the non-theist freedom of Zen. He implies no confinement to any given religion; nor does he imply a spirituality that is entirely without roots. It is a matter of wearing one’s beliefs lightly, and being able to let go of those that obscure the manifestation of the sacred. Always the reality which must be faced is that of the profane realm, in which we are born, we live and we die. There is no escape from this obligation. Indeed, according to Zen, enlightenment involves complete acceptance of reality. As Watts would remind us: ‘This is IT.’


Finally, then, it is worth pointing to a more recent song whose very title echoes this same idea. ‘Here It Is’, from Ten New Songs (2001), is one of Cohen’s most economical presentations of the mystical paradox that is common to Zen and to Blake alike, that ‘Everything that lives is Holy.’ Understanding this involves being able to affirm even the most degraded and demeaning of experiences, being able to grant their validity. One’s ‘love for all things’ necessarily must include ‘your drunken fall’, ‘your cardboard and piss’, ‘your bed and your pan’. The chorus sums up the Buddhist theme of impermanence with startling clarity: ‘May everyone live,/ And may everyone die./ Hello, my love,/ And my love, goodbye.’ But every word of the song – scarcely any of them longer than two syllables – brings home with great economy the meaning of ‘samsara’ (the wheel of existence, the cycle of living and dying): for example, ‘here is your death/ in the heart of your son’. Finally, we are struck by Cohen’s impulse to bring Jesus, the ‘beautiful loser’, into the picture. Cohen invokes him in the course of inviting us to embrace pain and mortality, and in so doing to know ‘nirvana’ (the extinction of ego): ‘Here is your cross,/ Your nails and your hill;/ And here is the love/ That lists where it will.’[xiv] The Biblical vocabulary is informed by Eastern wisdom. The beatific vision could hardly be made more simple (though not, we should add, simplistic).  Cohen’s instinct that Zen complements rather than contradicts Western religion is borne out by his own work. By that I mean that, right through his career, you can see a wholly consistent attempt to articulate the beatific vision in accessible and compelling language. Though Cohen is a very different writer in many ways from Snyder, they concur on essentials; and the essence is Zen. Nor should his interest in mythology and Native American lore be overlooked.


Whether one would apply the phrase ‘Eco-Zen’ to Cohen’s work is another matter: he certainly celebrates nature in a spiritual, indeed mystical, perspective; but his is not an ostensibly ‘green’ Buddhism.  However, his affirmation of the human potential to find meaning ‘among the garbage and the flowers’ is a nicely ambiguous echo of Blake’s dictum. At the very least, we may say that Cohen’s vision complements that of Morrison and that of Mitchell; and all three seem to make more and more sense as we explore their affinities with Snyder.  Taken together, all four endorse and extend what we have understood by the term ‘Beat’.


[i] Kenneth Rexroth quoted by Loranne S. Dorman and Clive L. Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart (London: Omnibus Press, 1990), p 213.


[ii] See David Boucher, Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll (New York: Continuum Press, 2004), pp. 15-17.


[iii] Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words ed. Jim Devlin (London: Omnibus Press, 1998), p 11.


[iv] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 11.


[v] Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (London: Panther Books, 1972).

[vi] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 40.

[vii] Cohen, ‘Suzanne’, Stranger Music, pp. 95-6.


[viii] Cohen, ‘If It Be Your Will’, Stranger Music, pp. 343-4.

[ix] Dorman and Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart, p. 301.


[x] David Sheppard, Leonard Cohen (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000), p 115.


[xi]  Sheppard, Leonard Cohen, p. 116.

[xii] Cohen, ‘Anthem’, Stranger Music, pp. 373-4.


[xiii] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 40.

[xiv] Leonard Cohen, ‘Here It Is’, [accessed 3rd January 2006].



‘Mr Tambourine Man’

Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ as Beat poem     

 Laurence Coupe

 From: Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester: MUP, 2007)

Note: This discussion of the song comes towards the end of the chapter on Dylan, in which I demonstrate his debt to the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

In the earlier chapter on Kerouac, I outline his understanding of the term ‘Beat’, which was shared by Ginsberg.

Beat Sound, Beat Vision, pp 56-7

[Kerouac’s] reinvigoration of literary culture by drawing on possibilities previously ignored in popular culture, both as a writer and a man, is inseparable from his spiritual quest.  To understand this, we need to be alert to the connotations of the word ‘Beat’. We have already addressed these briefly in the Introduction; now we must examine them in detail. Our main task, then, is to consider carefully in turn the following three aspects of Kerouac’s work, showing how the third proceeds logically from the first two:

1.His development of a new style of writing inspired by jazz – particularly ‘bebop’ – and blues. This is ‘beat’ in the musical sense.

2.His fascination with the oppressed and dispossessed, with the figure of the hobo, tramp or bum. This is ‘beat’ in the sense of weary or worn down.

3.His conviction of a new kind of spiritual revelation, made possible by the first two dimensions. This is ‘beat’ in the sense of ‘beatific’.


In my chapter on Dylan, I precede my discussion of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ with a reference to two others of his mid-60s songs, ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘Visions of Joanna’.

Beat Sound, Beat Vision, pp 112-17

‘Gates of Eden’ is a song about our fallen world, as understood by contrast with the earthly paradise which, according to the Book of Genesis, we have lost. The Blakean twist of thought which Dylan adds is the proviso that paradise is by its very nature lost, since it is impossible for fallen humanity to conceive of it, except as the contrary state to the fallen world. The sacred may only be understood in dialectical relationship with the profane. Hence the litany of negatives which bring each verse to its climax: for example, there are ‘no kings inside the Gates of Eden’, and ‘no truths outside the Gates of Eden.’ Outside those gates, the world is populated by deluded souls: for example, the ‘savage soldier’ who ‘sticks his head in sand and then complains’, the ‘paupers’ who each wish ‘for what the other has got’, and the ‘princess’ and ‘prince’ who endlessly discuss ‘what’s real and what is not.’ Moreover, the ‘kingdoms of Experience’ [sic] which rot in the wind are dominated by spiritual manipulators, such as the ‘utopian monks’ who sit ‘sidesaddle on the Golden Calf’ making false ‘promises of paradise’, and by material oppressors, such as the ‘motorcycle black Madonna / Two-wheel gypsy queen’ who causes the ‘grey-flannel dwarf to scream’ (p. 175).

That last description, as we have seen, is decidedly Beat in idiom, being worthy of a Kerouac or a Ginsberg; but then, the whole song is an interesting ‘take’ on the beatific vision. It presents beatitude simultaneously from the perspective of both the earthly paradise (the life of innocence) and the wilderness of this world (the life of experience). It is deeply indebted to Blake. Robert Shelton, too, has noted this debt:

In 1793 Blake issued a series of pictorial emblems titled The Gates of Paradise.  In 1818, he reworked many of plates and added a text called ‘The Keys of the Gates’. The emblems traced man from cradle to grave, through various states of the soul’s desire and mortal frustration. To Blake the grave was not a place of death, but of spiritual mystery, echoing the Bible, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Swedenborg. Is ‘Gates of Eden’ both a Blakean song of innocence and of experience?[i]

It is a rhetorical question, surely. Dylan is demonstrating that he can revisit the visionary landscape of Blake just as productively as can Ginsberg. Moreover, as Shelton intuits here, Dylan is fully aware of the dialectic which informs Blake’s imagination — innocence and experience being ‘contrary states’, not opposed realms.

Another song from this period which manages to articulate the need for redemption from the depths of experience is one of the most striking achievements of the double-album, Blonde on Blonde (1966). ‘Visions of Johanna’ depicts life in the modern metropolis as alienated and fragmentary (‘We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it’), where even art offers no solace but rather a confirmation of disillusionment (‘Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues – you can tell by the way she smiles’). While ‘Louise and her lover’ lie ‘entwined’ in a warehouse apartment, the solitary figure who stands by and who narrates such story as the song contains can only hope for his visions of Johanna to be fulfilled. We note that she is referred to also as ‘Madonna’ — a word which seems to be used here with its full spiritual association, unlike the ironic allusion in ‘Gates of Eden’ (pp. 223-4). Echoing Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, Dylan’s song would seem to be about the hunger for beatific experience – the hope that the sacred realm might yet be glimpsed within the profane. Johanna, like Gerard, represents the salvation that comes out of suffering. But unlike Kerouac, Dylan depicts this possibility as tauntingly remote – a cause of suffering in itself. Thus, ‘Visions of Johanna’ is one of his major ‘songs of experience’, along with ‘Gates of Eden’.

As we have acknowledged, the Blakean dialectic makes no sense unless we understand that innocence and experience imply each other: innocence is shadowed by experience, just as experience gestures towards innocence. Ultimately, Blake would see a renewed innocence, stronger and more coherent than pre-lapsarian innocence, emerging out of experience; but meanwhile the poet’s task is to keep the dialectic of innocence and experience, sacred and profane, alive.  We need, then, to remind ourselves of this possibility, by way of return to the key album, Bringing It All Back Home, in order to consider the song which, more than any other of Dylan’s, celebrates the infinite potential of vision. I refer, of course, to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (pp. 172-3).

Unfortunately, the glib consensus over the years has been that its subject-matter is drugs. Besides the fact that Dylan himself has denied this hotly, it must be said that to interpret the figure of the tambourine man as a drug dealer is offensively reductive. To do so is to cut oneself off from the imaginative and spiritual potential of a great poem. In referring to the song as a poem, I am endorsing Ginsberg’s judgement, bearing in mind that Dylan’s is a poetry of performance rather than of the printed page. Relevant here is the fact that, though ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is featured on the first album of Dylan’s electric phase, the song itself is sung chiefly to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar (as with the earlier work). It seems to invite us to ponder the lyrics in depth, all of which are articulated with precision by the singer-songwriter. If we pre-empt their meaning by simply ‘ticking off’ any possible allusions to drugs, we are hardly doing the song justice.

So, having decided to take this work of art seriously, we have to ask ourselves who we think the ‘Tambourine Man’ of the title really is. Here we could do worse than to consult the text that Dylan has previously drawn upon, namely the Bible. In the Judaic scriptures, the playing of a tambourine is frequently associated with spiritual ecstasy. Thus: ‘Some of the people of Israel were playing music on small harps…and on tambourines… [King] David and the others were happy, and they danced for the Lord with all their might’ (2 Samuel 6:5). Dylan’s central symbol would seem, then, to be that of transcendence – or at least the desire for transcendence.  In other words, the quest is for an apprehension of holiness, for a sense of the sacred. But his song is not conventionally religious, so perhaps it is indebted as much to Blake as to the Bible. That is, the aim is to cleanse ‘the doors of perception’, to experience ‘Eternity in an hour’, in defiance of the dead weight of conformist consumerism. Here again we note the ‘Beat’ connection, for the tambourine man is the bearer of the ‘beatific’ vision, even while the singer indicates a state of being ‘beat’. Specifically, he asks him to ‘play a song for me’ at the moment when ‘My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet…’

The figure invoked, then is no more a religious teacher than he is a drug dealer: rather, he is the spirit of poetry or music. It is he who has the visionary power to transport the singer ‘upon your magic swirling ship’ and to ‘cast your dancing spell my way’. In this light, we might be tempted to see him as the traditional figure of the Muse; but we need to bear in mind both that the Muse has always been thought of as feminine, and that the function of the Muse is to inspire poets rather than to actually create poetry. Though we might want to say that Dylan is the poet/singer seeking inspiration, his own song is an appeal to some superior force to create the ultimate ‘song of songs’. Thus, the tambourine man is a personification of the power of poetry – poetry being understood, in traditional terms, as inseparable from music.

While the singer’s initial request to the tambourine man is that he ‘play a song for me’ in order that he can be followed in the ‘jingle jangle morning’ – a morning brought alive by the sound of the tambourine – the figure addressed is more than a mere fellow-practitioner. He represents the force of art itself, which transcends time even while those who are touched by it necessarily remain in time. For if ‘evening’s empire has returned into sand’ – the sand of an hourglass? the sand of the circus ring referred to later in the song? both simultaneously? – then we know that, so long as we live and breathe, we are part of the cycle of daily existence, during which evening and morning are endlessly repeated. The paradox is that, though time may appear to be the enemy of imagination – ‘the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming’ – it is only in time that one may choose to surrender to the ‘dancing spell’. In that moment, profane time is experienced as sacred time.

We can get closer to the heart of this paradox if we are open to the rich ambiguity of a line such as the following: ‘And but for the sky there are no fences facing.’ Now, the endless sky is an image of total freedom, but Dylan’s song reminds us that, though we have a great more spiritual potential than our society allows for, we are all of us necessarily constrained by the need to articulate our yearning for eternity and infinity in time and space. Hence the singer advises the tambourine man that, if he hears ‘vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme / To your tambourine in time,’ he should remind himself that it is only ‘a ragged clown’ or ‘shadow’ in pursuit. Poetry itself – this very poem, which calls out for another poem (‘play a song for me’) – works through certain agreed principles, such as ‘rhyme’. Even the ‘tambourine’ must be played ‘in time’. The ‘ragged clown’ who follows ‘behind’, as a ‘shadow’, knows this, even as he celebrates the vision of eternity which he attributes to the elusive figure whom he invokes and pursues. As Blake tells us: ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’[ii] Or, as Spengler suggests, the macrocosm is manifest in the microcosm. If the poet is he who can reveal eternity to us, he does so by means of the ‘skipping reels of rhyme’: in one aspect, they are what keep us where we are (as in the act of skipping); in another aspect, they are what makes possible the vision of eternity. The tambourine man would not exist in our imagination if some ‘shadow’ such as the singer of this song had not invoked him through the incantatory power of language.

So it is that the song concludes with the ‘ragged clown’ (he who is, we might say, ‘beaten down’ by time) knowing himself to be part of the ‘dance’ which the tambourine man creates (the ‘beatific’ vision, as it were). After the singer’s situation has been described in a series of negatives (‘there is no place I’m going to … I have no one to meet … my hands can’t feel to grip’), we come to the moment of affirmation: ‘Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free…’ Here the sky represents eternity, but we are not intended to forget that the very image of eternal freedom is one that involves temporal movement.

After all, ‘to dance beneath the diamond sky’ is a moment of illumination that the singer hopes for rather than one he claims to have had. If he were ever to reach a state ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’, he would have to be taken ‘Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, / The haunted frightened trees…’ That is, the imagination would have to comprehend all the trials and tribulations of human experience. Even then, on the ‘windy beach’ he would be ‘silhouetted by the sea’ and ‘circled by the circus sands’. Such images are deeply ambiguous. The sea might represent death just as much as dream, oblivion just as much as the infinite potential of the unconscious mind. The ‘circus sands’ might represent the absurd cycle of time – referring back to the image of ‘evening’s empire’ returning ‘into sand’ — just as much as the play of art which produces vision.

The affirmation stands, however, by virtue of the paradoxical relationship between time and eternity, between rhyme and vision, which the song revisits. The singer is entitled to feel that ‘memory and fate’ – past and future – have been ‘driven deep beneath the waves’, and that he can ‘forget about today until tomorrow’; but he knows that there is going to be a tomorrow, in which today will have become yesterday. Again, when he dances to the tune played by the tambourine man, he has ‘one hand waving free’: this is an image of constraint and abandonment simultaneously. But then, that is the very nature of imagination: it works through the dialectic between form and improvisation, between what one receives and what one gives.

It might be worth ending this account of the song with Dylan’s response to another question which he was asked at about this time: did he think of himself primarily as a singer or as a poet? He replied that he thought of himself ‘more as a song and dance man’.[iii] No doubt intended to undermine the more pompous claims made on his behalf, such as ‘spokesperson for a generation’, his choice of words is nonetheless revealing. His song, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, is a celebration of the power of the ‘song’ which is also a ‘dance’: one that releases us from the burden of time even as it follows the rhythm of time. Thus, perhaps ultimately the tambourine man represents that potential within ourselves to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’ and ‘to hold infinity in the palm of your hand’. The ‘ragged clown’ will always be ‘circled by the circus sands’, but in his capacity as ‘song and dance man’ he will surely find a way to ‘see a World in a grain of sand’. In the terms we have used from the outset, we might say that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is a classic example of the beatific vision: it pursues the possibility of spiritual freedom to the point of mystical transcendence, but remains faithful to the obligation of art to celebrate the profane world even as it makes manifest the sacred.


Please note that the full references are given in my book.

[i] Shelton, No Direction Home, p. 276.

 [ii] Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in Complete Poetry and Prose, p. 36.

[iii] Dylan, Bob Dylan In His Own Words, p. 73.




Laurence Coupe

Article 2333, Academia Letters (2021)


‘Suzanne’, Parasites of Heaven (1966); Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)


Apart from ‘Hallelujah’, this is probably Leonard Cohen’s most famous song. It is reassuringly familiar: we hear the first few gentle sounds of Cohen’s acoustic guitar and we anticipate that opening line: ‘Suzanne takes you down …’, and maybe mouth the words along with the singer. But it is precisely because it is so widely known that it needs looking into more deeply, to see if there are hidden meanings that familiarity tends to prevent us exploring.

What I want to do, then, is take up a few significant words and phrases from the song, roughly in the order in which they occur, and follow them through as far as we can go. Cohen was an artist of great intelligence and learning, who made his reputation as poet, novelist and singer-songwriter. In many cases, he would take an existing poem of his and turn it into a song. ‘Suzanne’ is a good example. Were we analysing it as poetry, it would be expected that we trace cultural allusions, religious references and so forth. For some reason, many critics hesitate to be equally thorough when it comes to interpreting song, as it is assumed to be an inferior medium. Cohen’s work consistently reminds us that the distinction is fallacious.

Before proceeding, however, I need to address an issue that inevitably arises in the reading of songs, as of poems: whose voice is it we hear? Because it is never possible with any song to state that the person who speaks – or, rather, sings – in it is an actual person, it is always best to refer to this figure as the ‘persona’. Certainly, s/he is not necessarily to be identified with either the songwriter or the singer. For example: the persona of ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ is an unemployed veteran of the First World War, waiting for a food handout; he is neither E. Y. Harburg nor Bing Crosby. For example: the persona of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is a convict who is guilty of murder; he is not Johnny Cash.

Even when the persona and songwriter seem to be close, you have to be careful not to make assumptions. For example: the persona of ‘Blue’ is a woman desperate for real affection in a counterculture which seems to be all about love but which is really all about self-indulgence and exploitation; she is not necessarily Joni Mitchell. For example: the persona of ‘Graceland’ is a divorced man travelling to Memphis, Tennessee to visit the home of Elvis Presley in the hope of finding redemption; he is not necessarily Paul Simon. In both these cases – Mitchell and Simon – we may suspect that the persona does come pretty close to the songwriter, but that still does not permit us to make wild biographical speculations.

With Cohen, we need to be more careful than usual: after all, he has been too often taken to be merely giving vent to a mood of gloom (hence the sarcastic nickname, ‘Laughing Lenny’) rather than composing a subtly interconnected work of art.




‘Suzanne takes you down’

The general consensus is that the original Suzanne was Suzanne Verdal (married name, Vaillincourt). Certainly, it cannot refer to Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen’s children, Adam and Lorca. Alberto Manzana reports that Cohen himself stated that she was married to a sculptor friend of his in Montreal. He commented further: ‘She had a lot of courage, and in such a repressed society she used her courage to express what she wanted. She was a ballerina and on one occasion she invited me to eat oranges by the river.’

However, just as we have to be careful in matching up the ‘persona’ of the song with the songwriter, we have to be careful in matching up characters from songs with real people. Ultimately, the details of Suzanne Verdal’s way of life, and the nature of Cohen’s relationship with her, do not matter: they merely serve as starting points for an imaginative exploration of what it means for a person to achieve and maintain one’s vision.

‘The river … the boats’

In the mid-1960s Suzanne Verdal lived in an apartment by the St Lawrence River in Montreal. Nearby was the chapel of ‘Our Lady of Good Hope’, with a statue of the Virgin Mary facing onto the water, as if blessing the sailors setting off on their sea-voyages. This fact can help explain some details of the song, but we need to go beyond them in order to understand the song as a whole.

‘Half crazy’

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus declares that ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’ (V.i.7-8). The duke’s own position is sceptical: he means to demean both love and poetry. However, their association with madness has usually been positively celebrated – particularly by poets since the Romantic era of William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others. This song is no exception. Suzanne comes across as an eccentric, bohemian, artistic figure, who might be dismissed as ‘half crazy’ by more conventional people, but who has certainly cast her spell over her male visitor.

Moreover, whether we insist on associating that visitor with Cohen or not, this particular ‘poet’ is using his ‘imagination’ to celebrate Suzanne both as a particular person and as an archetypal woman. In this context, Carl Jung would call her the positive ‘anima’: that is, the female ‘soul’ who stands as an ideal for the male ego in its quest to become a centred, spiritual ‘Self’. We might think also of the figure of Beatrice, whom Dante celebrates as the inspiration for his visionary journey from Hell, through Purgatory, and thence to Heaven.

It is interesting that Duke Theseus goes on to elaborate on his insight as follows: ‘And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’ (V.i.14-17). Reading this in a positive, Romantic perspective, we can say that Cohen manages to capture ‘airy nothing’, that is, the indefinable, elusive quality of the kind of woman he admires. He does so by providing circumstantial details about her way of life that convince us that she really exists: he gives her both ‘a local habitation’ and ‘a name’. We come to know and like Suzanne – know and like her sufficiently to ‘want to travel with her’.

‘Tea and oranges’

Most students of Cohen concur that Suzanne Verdal served a tea known as ‘Constant Comment’, a blend of tea-leaves and orange rind. But we do not have to think of a real person or a real event to register the rich sense of detail in the song. This particular detail is charged with significance, though it is not immediately obvious. Suzanne is very exact in her choice of beverage and the manner in which she prepares and provides it. We are reminded, surely, of the Japanese tea ceremony, the purpose of which is to make us realise that everyday actions such as eating and drinking, if carried out attentively, can be a source of religious awakening. Now the basis of such a ritual is Zen Buddhism, which derived originally from China – the place from where, the song tells us, Suzanne’s tea comes. By giving us the details of her ‘local habitation’, her way of life, Cohen simultaneously alerts us to its spiritual dimension.

‘Perfect body … mind’

The relationship between male and female in the song seems to be Platonic: that is, spiritual rather than physical. But the refrain of each verse serves to query the distinction between mind and body, spirit and flesh. Putting this another way, we may say that the song assumes that we know the difference between what we call the ‘sacred’ and what we call the ‘profane’, and then takes us to the point where we realise they are ultimately one.

The standard definition of ‘sacred’ is ‘dedicated to a deity or religious purpose; relating to or used in religious worship’. ‘Profane’, on the other hand, means ‘showing disrespect for God, any deity, or religion; not connected with or used for religious matters; not initiated into sacred or secret rites’. What Cohen does in the song is deliberately to subvert the distinction: to reveal the sacred in the profane. In doing so, he is following the example of such visionary poets as Blake, for example, who famously declared it possible ‘To see the world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour’.

‘Jesus was a sailor’

It is typical of Cohen to talk of one sphere of existence in terms of another. That is partly why he effortlessly moves from the figure of Suzanne in the first verse to that of Jesus in the second. The transition to Jesus works particularly well because Cohen has already set up this association, with his stress on the river and the boats. But there is more to say about the idea of Jesus as ‘sailor’.

Cohen, brought up as a Jew in Montreal, was early on introduced to Christianity by his Catholic nanny, who instilled in him a lifelong fascination with the figure of the crucified Jesus. In 1968, the year of the release of this album, we find him reflecting as follows: ‘Our natural vocabulary is Judaeo-­Christian. That is our blood myth. … We have to rediscover the crucifixion. … It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.’ [Leonard Cohen in His Own Words (ed. Robert Dimery, Omnibus Press, 1988, p 10]

Though the reality of the crucifixion is never far away from Cohen’s mind, the specific event which he evokes here is one of Jesus’s many miracles. We may recall that his disciples were instructed to take a ship out to sea in order to meet him after he had spent time praying on a mountain on the other side. However, a storm began to blow, and they became afraid. Just then they saw Jesus walking across the water towards them.

It is clear that Jesus’s purpose in walking on the water is not only to calm the fears of his disciples but also to demonstrate his divine powers. Moreover, his miracle has symbolic force. In the first chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, we are told that ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1: 2). That is, the establishment of the cosmos involves conquest over chaos, here represented by ‘the deep’. Jesus’s action echoes the act of creation. It echoes too the episode in the Book of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, where they have been held captive as slaves, thanks to God miraculously parting the waters of the Red Sea. Life comes out of death; freedom comes out of slavery.

How does Cohen use the story, and what does he add to it? He dwells on the human aspect of the character of Jesus, depicting him as waiting patiently before attempting to walk on the water, calculating that this will have most impact when his disciples are at their most vulnerable. It is then that his promise to liberate humanity from their enslavement, their immersion in the waters of death, will be most effective. Brilliantly, Cohen then immediately brings onto the horizon that other event, the crucifixion. Despite Jesus’s triumph, he knew he would have to fall: he would have to be ‘broken’ on the cross, condemned by the ‘wisdom’ of this world (Roman rule, or whatever forms it has taken in our supposedly less barbaric era). But then again, it is precisely when Jesus sinks beneath the weight of worldly authority that he is, for Cohen, most glorious. As the innocent victim, tortured and killed, he is the scapegoat who takes upon himself the burden of all our sins, from which he thereby releases us. His very defeat is his victory. We would be best abandoning our certainties in order to ‘travel blind’ and to ‘trust him’.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind the title of Cohen’s second novel: Beautiful Losers (1966). It is a telling phrase, and it indicates Cohen’s love of paradox, which is the key to his worldview. Jesus is for him precisely a ‘loser’ in terms of our selfish, materialistic civilisation; but it is this very fact that makes him ‘beautiful’, for he offers a vision that lifts us beyond the terms of that civilisation. As Cohen himself has declared: ‘I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of this earth. Any guy who said “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek” has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness.’ [Leonard Cohen in His Own Words, p 11]  As with Suzanne, we may know that he’s ‘half crazy’, but that is why we want to be with him.

There are other instances of a phrase or reference in ‘Suzanne‘ which merit further commentary, but that would result in an article almost twice as long. ‘Our lady of the harbour’ is certainly one, as is ‘Suzanne holds the mirror’. I’ll have to leave those for other readers to explore, but I hope that I’ve made a valid case for Cohen as an artist of complexity and depth.

The Semiotic Fallacy, Twenty Years On

The Semiotic Fallacy, Twenty Years On

Laurence Coupe

Academia Letters, Article 89, December 2020


It is twenty years since my Green Studies Reader was published by Routledge. In the general introduction, I addressed some of the assumptions of cultural and literary theory, suggesting that it was time to challenge  them.  I wrote:

In various schools – formalist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, deconstructionist, even Marxist – the common assumption has been that what we call ‘nature’ exists primarily as a term within a cultural discourse, apart from which it has no being or meaning.  That is to say, it is a sign within a signifying system, and the question of reference must always be placed in emphatic parentheses.  To declare that  there is ‘no such thing as nature’ has become almost obligatory within literary and cultural studies.  The great fear has been to be discovered committing what might be called ‘the referential fallacy’.  On the one hand, the scepticism of theory has proved salutary: too often previous critics assumed that their preferred works of literature told the ‘truth’ about the world.  On the other hand, it has encouraged a heavy-handed culturalism, whereby suspicion of ‘truth’ has entailed the denial of non-textual existence. It is a mistake easily made, perhaps, once one has recognised the crucial role language plays in human sense-making.  But it should still be pointed out that, in failing to move beyond the linguistic turn … [and in] seeking to avoid naivete, [theory] has committed what might be called ‘the semiotic fallacy’. (1)


I returned to this theme later in the introduction:

So green studies does not challenge the notion that human beings make sense of the world through language, but rather the self-serving inference that nature is nothing more than a linguistic construct. Kate Soper … makes the point dramatically: ‘In short, it is not language which has a hole in its ozone layer; and the real thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier.’(2) [‘Coupe, ‘Intro’, GSR, p. 3]

I should also mention that, in subsequently addressing the question of vocabulary, I acknowledged the complexity of the concept of ‘Nature’, and I stressed the need to be careful in using the term. I summarised my position as succinctly as I could: ‘green studies debates “Nature” in order to defend nature.’ [‘Coupe, ‘Intro’, GSR, p. 7]


When I wrote that introduction, I anticipated a negative reaction from the more dogmatic ‘culturalists’, and even mockery of my own stance as sheer simplification. However, my formulation of ‘the semiotic fallacy’ seems to have passed into the critical lexicon without much fuss.  Oddly, as I now realise, I’ve never sought to expand on my initial formulation of that principle – despite the fact that nearly all my books address the theme of ecology. However, in the course of reviewing a remarkable work by Robert Macfarlane, namely Landmarks (2015), I instinctively felt that the principle was exactly apposite. I began by quoting a line from a song by The Smiths, a British band that dominated the pop culture of the 1980s:  ‘Nature is a language – can’t you read?’ I continued:

What their lyricist Morrissey offers here is a way out of what I call ‘the semiotic fallacy’: the bizarrely widespread assumption that, because human words give human shape and significance to the non-human world, the latter is otherwise inarticulate.

We could never accuse Robert Macfarlane of committing that error. Over the past decade or so he has produced a series of books that really does help us ‘read’ the natural world. Now, in Landmarks, he gives himself scope to be extensively explicit about the way that human language can complement an already vocal landscape. …

Looking back over Macfarlane’s writing career, it occurs to me that for him etymology and ecology have always been inseparable. Now, with Landmarks, the potential of the English language to counter what he calls the ‘desecration’ of nature and to promote its ‘re-enchantment’ is richly demonstrated. (3)

Let me say that I still stand by my judgement of that book, and I still think that the principle of ‘the semiotic fallacy’ helps us appreciate its importance. Moreover, I hope that it’s a phrase that expresses what a lot of ecological citizens have been thinking, without using that exact wording. Whether that is the case or not, I hope that readers will understand my desire to come to terms, as it were, with my own terminology. We all agree, I’m sure, that language merits our constant attention!


(1)Laurence Coupe, ‘General Introduction’, The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (2000), p. 2. [Further references given in parenthesis after the quotation.]

(2)Kate Soper, What is Nature?, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, p. 151.

(3)Laurence Coupe, Review of Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks(Hamish Hamilton, 2015), Times Higher Education, 26 February 2015.

For full review see: 



Thoughts on Jack Kerouac

Thoughts on Jack Kerouac

Ringing Roger, August 2015


Like many other young people in the late 1960s, I was attracted by the danger that hovered round the very name of Jack Kerouac. Carrying a copy of On the Road, I hoped it might suggest to my peers that I was ‘hip’.  It didn’t take me long to realise, however, that ‘digging’ Kerouac as the wild man of American letters is just as much an insult to his memory as dismissing him for the same reason.

True, as everyone knows, Kerouac was an advocate of what he called ‘spontaneous prose’. But he also coined the phrase ‘Mind is shapely, Art is shapely.’ That is: discipline the mind, nurture the soul, and then speak from the heart. Ultimately his work is not about unbridled self-expression but about honouring the holiness of existence.

The term ‘Beat’ is bandied about a good deal, but what did this most famous of ‘Beat’ writers actually meant by the term? Yes, he was referring to the ‘beat’ of music, particularly the bebop of Charlie Parker, which gave him a model of how to improvise on a theme, taking the notes – or words – to dizzy new heights. Yes, he was also referring to the state of being ‘dead beat’, of having no investment in the shiny world of modern materialism. But these for him were really just means of attaining ‘Beat’ in the sense that mattered most to him: ‘beatitude’, or, as he once explained, being ‘like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practising endurance, kindness’ and ‘practising a little solitude’. His novel The Dharma Bums conveys what this might involve.

The fact that Kerouac himself, in submitting to alcoholism, chose death rather than life by no means disqualifies his art. Visions of Gerard is a meditation on the fact that being alive implies suffering and transience, and on the need to face these without fear while maintaining compassion for other living-dying creatures. He was no irresponsible hedonist; he was a religious visionary.

As to his influence, I see it most clearly in the songs of Bob Dylan, who once famously told us: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ Dylan it was who visited Kerouac’s grave with Allen Ginsberg, and told him that it was reading Kerouac’s volume of poetry Mexico City Blues that first showed him how to write in a living language one, he might have added, that can comprehend death as well as life. Dylan, too, has used such a language to speak memorably of mortality and the search for spiritual truth.

Laurence Coupe

Kenneth Burke — Pioneer of Ecocriticism


Journal of American Studies, 3 (2001), pp 413-431.

‘Kenneth Burke — Pioneer of Ecocriticism’

Laurence Coupe

 Please note:

1.I have here taken the opportunity of revising the first paragraph.

2.As presented here, the footnote numbers are given in brackets and in normal font after the given reference.




Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of the planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole. (1)

Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (1937)

Burke’s reputation


Nearly every handbook of critical theory acknowledges Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) to be the twentieth-century North American critic who was most ahead of his time. Yet he seems to have been so ambitious that we still do not know how to place him. Indeed, it would require the space of a whole book to trace the extensive but barely acknowledged impact which he has had. Concepts for which many other critics became famous may be traced back to him: ‘the rhetoric of fiction’ (Booth), ‘blindness and insight’ (De Man); ‘narrative as a socially symbolic act’ (Jameson); ‘the anxiety of influence’ (Bloom). Indeed, it may well be that very anxiety which has led so many contemporary critics to repress his memory. But there is a change in the critical climate, corresponding to the global. This article is written in the hope that Burke will shortly be recognised as the first critical theorist systematically to analyse culture and literature from an ecological perspective. As the dating of our epigraph indicates, he began this project over half a century before the rise of what is sometimes called ‘ecocriticism’ and sometimes called ‘green studies’ – the latter term having the advantage of being more comprehensive, and so more Burkean. Moreover, this was no passing phase for him: his whole career may be understood as a pioneering project – an adventure in green thinking.

But before we pursue Burke’s ecological trajectory, perhaps we ought to consider first how his contribution has been understood, where proper attention has been paid prior to the emergence of a green theory. For convenience, I will single out two laudatory accounts by two important critics, both of whom seek to enlist a neglected genius for their causes. The first occurs in a chapter of Geoffrey Hartman’s Criticism in the Wilderness (1981), where Burke is celebrated for his resistance to the ‘model of transcendence’. Despite having influenced Northrop Frye, Burke is praised in particular for offering an alternative to Frye’s tendency to translate literature into the terms of religious vision, to move smoothly from ‘words’ to ‘Word’. That is, whereas Frye regards all texts under the aspect of the one, inclusive ‘sacred book’, subsuming secular diversity under sacred unity, Burke wishes to ‘demystify spiritual concepts by a “thinking of the body” that does not devalue them.’ Instead of imposing order, he engages with ‘the duplicity of words’; he does not strive for ‘final synthesis, conversion, or its scientific equivalent: a postulate, like Frye’s, separating the study of art from the immediate experience of art’. For Burke, writing criticism is itself ‘a way of establishing an immediate relation to words: the words of others, which remain words about words, the words in oneself, which also remain words about words.’ Indeed, Hartman wishes to go beyond the illustrative contrast with Frye to claim that Burke’s whole enterprise constitutes ‘a critique of pure thinking as well as of pure poetry’. Order must be open to irony. For the urge towards purification is a ‘visionary disease’, the cure for which is demonstrated by Burke’s careful attention to ‘the peculiarly human tools called symbols, of which the “verbal principle” is recognized even in religion by the term “Logos”.’ (2)

Hartman’s is a useful, succinct summation. However, in order to enlist Burke for his own secular hermeneutics, he perhaps lays too much stress on his hostility to the transcendental impulse: as we shall see, Burke’s dialectic involves a constant play of immanence and transcendence. Moreover, despite arguing against pure poetry, he in effect commends Burke as a purely literary critic, thus missing the full extent of his radicalism. By contrast, Frank Lentricchia attempts in his Criticism and Social Change (1983) to effect a wholesale political recuperation of his achievement. If this has the disadvantage of converting Burke’s highly independent way of thinking too readily into Marxist terms, it has the advantage of situating his contribution to North American theory in a wider context. For example, while acknowledging that a disposition towards irony, together with a stress on linguistic performance, might suggest an anticipation of the New Criticism, and while detecting evidence of ‘formalism’, he demonstrates that a consistently social concern redeems the early Burke’s apparent aestheticism. This allows Lentricchia to argue that Burke’s overall importance is as a model of political insight:

The real force of his thinking is to lay bare, more candidly than any writer I know who works in theory, the socially and politically enmeshed character of the intellectual. To put it that way is to say that Burke more even than Gramsci carries through the project on intellectuals implied by parts of the German Ideology. (3)

This explicit association with Marx will perhaps turn out to have been misplaced, once we look at Burke’s thinking in more detail. But the emphasis on his sense of historical situation, and of literature as a strategy for engaging with that situation, is well made. For Lentricchia goes on to propose, persuasively, that this kind of responsible criticism, unorthodox in its day, has found itself almost entirely marginalised with the triumph of deconstruction in the United States. To illustrate his point, he contrasts Burke with one highly representative theorist, Paul de Man. This is particularly interesting because, as indicated above, the former bequeathed the concept around which he built a critical career. As Lentricchia implies, when Burke speaks of ‘blindness and insight’, he does so in a context which is more than literary, whereas for de Man it provides a way of sealing off the text from the vulgarity of non-literary existence. What the two theorists have in common is irony; what separates them is the function they see it serving. For Burke it is a strategy of engagement; for de Man it is a rationalisation of evasion. Burke’s ‘exemplary effort’ as a ‘humanist intellectual’ is the ‘linkage’ of ‘the theoretical, the philosophical, and, in the broadest sense, the literary’ with ‘the political process’. In de Man Lentricchia sees ‘something like an attempt at the ultimate subversion of what Burke stands for’. The ‘insidious’ effect of his work, with its tone of ‘resignation and ivory tower despair’, is ‘the paralysis of praxis itself’. That is, de Man represents the dead-end of the formalism sponsored by the New Critics. Burke, on the other hand, knows from the outset the limits of the aesthetic dimension even as he seems to espouse it; and his work as a whole is a testimony to the importance of historical ‘intervention’. (4)  We may or may not agree with Lentricchia’s own political agenda, but his account of how the principles of a manifestly engaged critic came to be neglected, even while his name remained resonant, may clarify for us the complex fate of Burke’s legacy.

If de Man had come to represent North American critical orthodoxy by the time Criticism and Social Change was written, then Burke was bound to find himself excluded from meta-critical debate. But since then, we have witnessed a ‘greening of the humanities’ which has made de Man’s mandarin textualism seem rather irrelevant. The ‘paralysis of praxis’ is one thing; putting the planet in parenthesis is another. Yet that is what de Man may well be remembered for, now that an ecologically orientated theory has challenged his assumption that the one poetic theme is the power of the human imagination to refuse the claims of nature. (5) If this is the case, then Lentricchia is right that de Man and Burke are diametrically opposed. As we shall see, Burke it is who denies the possibility of ever making such a refusal, and whose career represents the first major environmental turn in North American theory. For, from his early to his very last writings, his view of literature as a mode of participation in both culture and nature informs his critique of ‘technological psychosis’. We still have much to learn from him.

How much has yet to be agreed. For it is a source of some wonderment that, if the conventional treatment of Burke has been to acknowledge him but rewrite him, American ecocriticism has scarcely begun to recognise him. Here we might refer briefly to Lawrence Buell’s monumental work, The Environmental Imagination, whose 560 pages of text contain not one reference to Burke. Perhaps we can understand why if we consider the general drift of the book’s argument. Buell is concerned mainly with the question of mimesis, of how nature is represented in ‘environmental nonfiction’ (or ‘nature writing’). This is not Burke’s concern, as green theorist: he foregrounds the question of praxis, of how human beings act in relation to the natural world. Buell regards the main challenge as the legacy of anthropocentrism: while accepting that this legacy must be negotiated rather than negated, he wants to propose a transition from the ‘egological self’ to the ‘ecological self’, by way of an ‘aesthetics of relinquishment’ (an approach to art that forgoes the privilege of human priority).  (6)  Burke accepts that a human view of the world will inevitably be anthropocentric, but argues that human beings have the ability and the responsibility to become as critical as possible of their own motives, insofar as they conflict with the planet’s. If Buell is asking that people rethink how they regard nature, Burke’s concern is with how they behave towards or within it. Hence he finds drama to be the most useful literary model, since it is about interaction. It is, of course, mimetic in origin, and Burke does not deny the importance of representation; but his own emphasis is, as I say, pragmatic, being concerned with effect, consequence, impact. The two orientations are not incompatible, and it is worth noting how far his and Buell’s interests converge. After all, Buell’s own definition of ecocriticism might be applied to Burke’s enterprise as well as his own: ‘the study of the relation between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis’. (7)  But it is worth insisting that it is Burke more than anyone who has demonstrated what such a relation, such a commitment and such a praxis might involve. This is not surprising, given the extraordinary length of his career, as compared with the recent phenomenon of environmental humanities courses. Perhaps once that discipline has become fully established, his ambitious, exploratory work will be recognised. Then there might be the opportunity to trace in detail the continuity between Burke and Buell. For a missing name will have been restored to the syllabus.

There is an indirect indication of the need for Burke’s influence to be recognised in a pertinent but general observation made by Cheryll Glotfelty, struggling to consolidate ecocriticism in the States in the mid-1990s:

If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed, you might never know there was an earth at all. In contrast, if you were to scan the newspaper headlines of the same period, you would learn of oil spills, lead and asbestos poisoning, toxic waste contaminations, extinction of species at an unprecedented rate… (8)

Her list goes on tellingly for the duration of a sizeable paragraph; but here her point may assume to have been made. Nor should its relevance to our discussion be lost. For, though Burke has been cited in many articles written from post-colonial, Marxist and feminist perspectives, it may yet be acknowledged that his most important contribution lay in his foregrounding the earth itself as the ultimate setting of critical activity. In short, his ultimate significance is as a pioneer of green thinking.

Which brings us, by way of an extensive but necessary prologue, to our central task. Given that Burke seems so seldom to be studied, the rest of this article will consist of what might be called corrective exposition: the record has to be set straight. As our epigraph indicates, Burke started using the word ‘ecology’ in 1937, in his Attitudes Toward History. That is one fact that cannot be emphasised enough. However, if we are to be accurate, we should also note that Burke himself points out in his afterword to the third edition of the book (1984) that when he first began using the phrase ‘ecological balance’ he did so ‘figuratively’, applying it to the workings of culture while seeking to bear in mind the wider context of the relationship between culture and nature. (9)  Thus, in proclaiming Burke as a pioneer of ecocriticism – or, better still, green studies – I am not simply saying he was one of the first to suggest that literary theory ought to be aware of ecology; I am also saying that his value lies in the example he sets of a consistent willingness to cross boundaries and to challenge assumptions in pursuit of a new understanding of humanity’s place on the planet. If he has a ‘lesson’ for us, William Rueckert has suggested, it is twofold: ‘everything implies everything else, and everything is more complicated than it seems.’ (10)


To get our bearings, we should establish the context in which his very earliest speculations on the relationship between art and nature were made. His first critical work, Counter-Statement (1931), might seem at first glance (in the light of Lentricchia’s misgivings) to be advocating a pure aestheticism, in line with certain modernist tendencies and in anticipation of the formalism of the New Criticism. Situating the book historically, however, one realises that it is more appropriately regarded as a riposte to the rise of fascism: that is, it repudiates the attempt to identify nature with ‘blood and soil’, with racial purity, with the triumph of the will. Thus, we should note the pointed phrasing of his ‘Program’ for a projected ‘Art Party’: ‘Experimentalism, curiosity, risk, dislike of propaganda, dislike of certainty…’(11) However, Burke’s case for aesthetic resistance to contemporary totalitarianism may be seen to merge with the wider paradigm of art which he is trying to establish, and upon which he will elaborate throughout his critical career. Thus, though he probably has contemporary right-wing ideology in mind when he further pronounces that ‘art may be of value purely through preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself,’ he is tentatively positing a general principle. (12) That is, what remains constant in Burke is the refusal of dogmatism; what fascinates the reader is his tireless attempt to decide what that involves: to decide, that is, how exactly ‘certainty’ and ‘propaganda’ are to be countered without surrendering to a chaos of individualistic impulses.

Between espousing a literary programme that might resist totalitarian views of nature and of society, and taking up the term ‘ecology’, Burke wrote the book that may be regarded as his seminal statement: Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935). It might be said to stand in relation to the rest of his work as does Being and Time to the rest of Martin Heidegger’s. (13)  Indeed, the very terms of the title invite comparison: ‘permanence’ is to ‘Being’ as ‘change’ is to ‘time’. Moreover, just as Heidegger might be misunderstood, his terms being taken to form a stark opposition, so Burke has over the years been accused of an essentialism which simply affirms ‘permanence’ and denies ‘change’. (14)  In fact, here as elsewhere, he is concerned with the inextricable relation between the two. The human ‘purpose’ which the book anatomises is one that proceeds dialectically.

In order to think at all, Burke suggests, we human beings must have an initial ‘orientation’, and this will necessarily involve a paradoxical mixture of ‘insight’ and ‘blindness’: in other words, a ‘way of seeing’ which is simultaneously ‘a way of not seeing’. An orientation will imply a reverence for certain principles, without which it could not function – what Burke calls ‘piety’. If this position is not to lead to dogmatism, it needs to be challenged by a process of ‘disorientation’ – what he calls ‘impiety’ or, more specifically, ‘perspective by incongruity’. (15) This opens up possibilities which the initial orientation excludes, forcing us to conceive that there might be other ways of looking at the world. Only then may we achieve ‘reorientation’, a chastened wisdom offering the basis of a new, richer ‘simplification’: this involves a ‘poetry of action’, an ‘ethical universe-building’ informed by a spirit of cooperation. (16)

Thus abstractly put, the Burkean dialectic might seem to offer only a footnote to the Hegelian. But – and here is the crucial point – the triad of orientation, disorientation and reorientation is designed to explain cultural life without entailing a heavily schematic historicism. For we are to understand that such a process is something in which the human species is continually involved. There is ‘change’ in Burke’s model, but there is no telos, no closure, no end that does not imply a new beginning. As for ‘permanence’: he sees his ‘science of symbolism’ as leading back to ‘a concern with “the Way”, the old notion of Tao, the conviction that there is one fundamental course of human satisfaction, forever being glimpsed and lost again, and forever being restated in the changing terms of reference that correspond with the changes of historic texture’. (17)

Here again, the charge of essentialism, or even idealism, might be made; nor would detailed repudiation be easy. By way of reply, and in anticipation of my later argument, I would simply point out here that for Burke thinking is always and necessarily attitudinal, and that the invocation of an ancient Chinese principle of fidelity to nature is at least as legitimate methodologically as Marx and Engels’ reliance on the hypothesis of ‘primitive communism’. Moreover, the circumspect manner in which Burke invokes the Tao should warn us against a facile debunking of his position. When he makes his case for a ‘philosophy of being’ as opposed to a ‘philosophy of becoming’, he is anxious that it will not be conveniently dismissed as a naïve reaction against historical thinking. As he explains: ‘In subscribing to a philosophy of being, as here conceived, one may hold that certain historically conditioned institutions interfere with the establishment of decent social or communicative relationships, and thereby affront the permanent biologic norms.’ (18) Thus, the air may be full of talk of social reform, but this will prove narrow and futile unless there is a sense of the wider relation between human society itself and its non-human context:

… for always the Eternal Enigma is there, right on the edge of our metropolitan bickerings, stretching outward to interstellar infinity and inward to the depth of the mind. And in this staggering disproportion between man and no-man, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss. (19)


Nor should we assume that Burke’s appeal to ‘permanent biologic norms’ and ‘the Eternal Enigma’ is evasive: he really is trying to provide a basis for situating and studying cultural life which might avoid empty progressivism. Though he is not afraid to call this ‘nature’, at this stage he often resorts to feigned inarticulateness, as when, in the introduction to Attitudes Toward History, seeking to persuade his readers that the most important task ahead is to help forestall ‘the most idiotic tragedy conceivable: the wilful ultimate poisoning of this lovely planet’, he appeals to them to ‘give thanks to Something or Other not of man’s making’. (20) Seeking to prevent such a tragedy and to promote such a sense of gratitude, Burke propounds a new discipline, ‘metabiology’, which will study the human organism in relation to its environment. (21)  Though Burke here, in Permanence and Change (1935), has not yet taken explicit note of the science of ecology, he is no longer distracted by the fascist ‘blood and soil’ from trying to gain an overview on the relation between culture and nature. Indeed, he is proposing here what he will spell out subsequently, that human beings are ‘bodies that learn language’; he is exploring what language adds to bodily life, what culture adds to nature, without opposing the two and without privileging the former and denigrating the latter. Nature, perceived in human terms as non-language, is necessarily the context or referent of the orientation, disorientation and reorientation which are the elements of his ‘dialectical biologism’. In particular, he is trying to get some purchase on that ‘technological psychosis’ which is the reduction to absurdity of ‘trained incapacity’: for it rests on the assumption that there is only one way of perceiving nature, and that is as an object to be exploited.


The comic frame

Attitudes Toward History may not seem a very promising title for the those interested in the natural environment. But even though Burke is being largely ‘figurative’ in his application of ecological principles, as he himself admits, the book does extend the insights of Permanence and Change into the dialectic of nature and culture, of biological energy and its symbolic expression. Indeed, his overriding aim is to affirm the physical, animal basis of all symbolisation. Above all, Attitudes offers a more detailed account of what is involved in human beings’ obsession with ‘becoming’ at the expense of ’being’: that is, it explores what happens when the non-human environment is not only subordinated to the claims of human autonomy but also treated as raw material for human ambition.

The book’s premise is that each literary genre implies a ‘frame’, whether of ‘acceptance’ (epic, tragedy, comedy), or of ‘rejection’ (elegy, satire, burlesque); either way, the frame implies an act of ‘transcendence’, the attainment of a stance beyond contingency. This is, of course, impossible to maintain, which is precisely Burke’s point. Similarly, each age has its dominant ‘attitude’, some spiritual ‘motive’ which offers to contain and inform historical experience. This might be conceived as a ‘collective poem’, a work of ‘folk art’; as such, it is open to ‘folk criticism’, a ‘collective philosophy of motivation’. For the ‘attitude of attitudes’ is a ‘comic frame’ that takes up all the implications and complications of the genre of comedy, as evident in social existence: it offers ‘the methodic view of human antics as a comedy, albeit a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy’. (22)  Here ‘tragedy’ refers to non-generic, material disasters, such as war and pollution; but Burke is also trying to alert us to the symbiotic relationship of the two literary forms. Hence, when he expands on his use of comedy as a model, he refers to its complementary genre:

Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. … The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. (23)


Having coined the phrase that de Man will appropriate for other ends, he goes on to draw his conclusions and make his commendations:

… the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would ‘transcend’ himself by noting his own foibles. …[It] considers human life as a project in ‘composition’, where the poet works with the materials of social relationships. Composition, translation, also ‘revision’, hence offering maximum opportunity for the resources of criticism. (24)

According to Burke, human beings have to be particularly careful when they put their principles into practice. Critical alertness is necessary if ‘the bureaucratization of the imaginative’, the attempt to ‘translate some pure aim or vision into terms of its corresponding material embodiment’, is not simply to replace the living spirit with the dead letter (as might be evinced by comparing the message of Jesus with the established church, or Marx’s early writings with Stalinist totalitarianism). Only by subjecting cultural activity to what Burke has already proposed in Permanence and Change, namely ‘perspective by incongruity’ (a perspective implicit in the very phrase ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’), may an ‘ecological balance’ be effected between the ideal ends and the material means, between the spiritual potential and the mundane actualisation, between the dream and the routine. (25)

The phrase ‘ecological balance’ is certainly pertinent. In his 1984 afterword to Attitudes Toward History, Burke stresses that his project, even in these earlier writings, is to warn against the current mental construction of the non-human world, which amounts in effect to its material destruction. A superficial reading might infer that his position is anti-technological: that he is, in short, the Luddite of caricature. But as one ponders his position more carefully, one discovers that his object of attack is a particular ‘attitude’, one of naïve faith in the capacity of unbridled ‘industrialism’ to save humanity even as it wastes and pollutes humanity’s earthly household. Thus, if the modern era dismissed the ‘Super-Nature’ of previous, more ‘superstitious’ times, then the task of the modern ‘folk critic’ is to challenge the monstrous ‘Counter-Nature’, the product or expression of the ‘technological psychosis’, which replaced it. (26)   In both cases, a framework of ideas is implied as well as an observable world.

For, just as the ‘comic frame’ of ‘folk criticism’ may draw attention to what human beings are up to, and (to persist in this appropriately colloquial idiom) where they are coming from, it can also remind them what they have missed out. All ‘attitudes’ imply the remorseless completion of a model: this was true of medieval theology, which sought to situate everything in nature as pointing towards the perfection of God; but nature is far more threatened by the modern ‘attitude’, which attributes absolute status to technology and which reduces everything to the level of ‘instrumentality’ in the name of this new, streamlined perfection, whose full realisation would necessitate the wholesale destruction of the planet. The dogmas of ‘hyper-technologism’ are to be countered by the ‘comic corrective’, the reminder that human life is a project continually in ‘composition’. For ‘the comic frame’, in making people ‘observers of themselves’, will demonstrate that, whatever ‘attitude’ is adopted, it is likely to offer as much ‘blindness’ as ‘insight’. One strikes an ‘ecological balance’ when one acknowledges what has been excluded, draws the appropriate conclusions and begins to take the appropriate remedial action.

 Marxism, technology and ‘logology’


Phrases such as ‘folk criticism’ and ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’ have encouraged some commentators to view Burke chiefly as a left-wing political thinker. We have referred to Frank Lentricchia’s valiant effort to recuperate Burke’s enterprise for a neo-Marxist theory that might resist the formalism of de Man’s deconstruction. Certainly, if Burke’s thinking is incipiently green, it is not to be confused with that kind of ecological speculation which denies the claims of society, revering nature to the detriment of culture. However, what needs to be emphasised in any just estimate of Burke’s own socially-oriented criticism is his willingness to suspect the ‘piety’ of Marxism, and in particular his mistrust of its ‘technological psychosis’.

Let us go back to the sentence quoted earlier from Permanence and Change concerning the need to maintain a ‘philosophy of being’ in order to criticise ‘certain historically conditioned institutions’ which ‘interfere with the establishment of decent social or communicative relationships, and thereby affront the permanent biologic norms’. Now let us note briefly how that particular argument develops: ‘[One] may further hold that certain groups or classes of persons are mainly responsible for the retention of these socially dangerous institutions.’ For a ‘philosophy of being’ may commit one to ‘open conflict with any persons or class of persons who would use their power to uphold institutions serving an anti-social function’. (27)  If Burke is here providing encouragement for a Marxist critique of capitalism, he is also indicating that Marxism runs the risk of confining itself to the presuppositions of capitalism. Sharply distinguishing his ‘philosophy of being’ from a ‘philosophy of passivity, or acquiescence’, he argues that it has an advantage over Marxist historicism, since it allows for a more radical perspective on modernity:

Our antihistoric position does not in the least imply surrender to historic textures through failure to consider their importance. On the contrary, we believe that in many respects it is the historical point of view which leads to such surrender on the grounds that one must adjust to temporal conditions as he finds them (teaching himself, for example, to accept more and more mechanization simply because the trend of history points in this direction). (28)

Thus Cary Wolfe is surely right to justify Burke’s challenge to Marxism as follows:

What Burke is getting at is that the full critical act must take into account a double dialectical relationship … The politically engaged critic must now confront not only the dialectic of human history and sociality itself, but also the dialectic between that realm and the environment which gets its nature or meaning from the demands we make of it. (29)


Burke trusts that his ‘metabiology’ offers the grounds for a more complete and more complex dialectic than afforded by Marxism, which seems unable to break with the ‘piety’ of capitalism in order to gain ‘perspective by incongruity’. As he himself puts it:

The Marxian perspective presents a point of view outside the accepted circle of contingencies. Or, more accurately stated: the Marxian perspective is partially outside this circle. It is outside as regards the basic tenets of capitalistic enterprise. It is inside as regards the belief in the ultimate values of industrialism. (30)

But this ‘rephrasing of the interactive principle (known in the language of Marxists as dialectical materialism)’ in terms of ‘dialectical biologism’ is meant to extend, not deny, its potential for critique: the common emphasis is on ‘the need of manipulating objective material factors as an essential ingredient to spiritual welfare’. The Marxist industrial model falls short in that, like Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’, it is ‘insufficiently methodical’. (31) The latter resting content with viewing nature as a jungle, and the former resting content with viewing nature as so much raw stuff to be processed, they both have an impoverished sense of ‘spiritual welfare’.

If ‘dialectical biologism’ is to be preferred to ‘dialectical materialism’, it is because its understanding of the culture-nature relationship is more comprehensive. Much hinges on the definition of the human species. In Attitudes Toward History Burke explicitly states his preference, in traditional Aristotelian terms, for ‘talking animal’ over ‘tool-making animal’; but the term he offers of his own is ‘symbol-using animal’. Put starkly, his argument is that if you define human beings by technology, you are unnecessarily exaggerating their rights and underestimating their responsibilities in relation to the planet. If you define human beings by terminology, you are allowing for the permanent possibility of self-critique, since there can be no system, attitude, orientation or frame that does not proceed from the capacity for language. Nearly thirty years after Attitudes Toward History, we can still find Burke working at his linguistic definition. Here he sets it out line by line, phrase by phrase:

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal

inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making

goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

and rotten with perfection. (32)  [Italics as in original.]

We will return to this striking catalogue of human attributes; but meanwhile, we obviously cannot let that final, provocative phrase pass without comment. Burke is at once acknowledging that the urge towards completion, fulfilment or ‘perfection’ is in itself a cause for celebration: after all, it has produced, to use the convenient ‘desert island’ conjunction, the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. But his concern is to prevent this urge from spoiling, or even destroying, human and non-human life in the course of its ‘bureaucratization’. Specifically, the task of the ‘folk critic’ in our day is to resist arrogant perfectionism by countering it with a method which is alert to those implications and complications ignored by ‘technological psychosis’ – perfectionism gone mad, as it were.

In denying excessive claims for technology, Burke rejects any account of
humanity which accepts rampant ‘industrialism’ as its highest achievement. Querying the definition of the human being in terms of labour and advocating a definition in terms of language, Burke early on opposes the Marxist tendency (not evident in the early Marx) towards the unquestioning acceptance of technology, in the name of the discipline he calls ‘logology’. His argument is that if we confine human expectations to the level of production, we will inevitably underplay other possibilities of human culture and overlook the disastrous consequences for non-human life. Marxism for Burke has become too restrictive a vision of temporal fulfilment. What he proposes instead, since we cannot avoid following things through to ‘the end of the line’, is a sense of the future that is genuinely open while remaining responsible to human and non-human needs:

…no political order has yet been envisaged, even on paper, adequate to control the instrumental powers of Technology. Even if you granted, for the sake of the argument, that (‘come the Revolution’) the utopia of a classless society becomes transformed from an ideality to a reality, there would remain the ever-mounting purely instrumental problems intrinsic to the realm of Counter-Nature as ‘progressively’ developed by the symbol-guided ‘creativity’ of technological prowess itself. (33)

‘Logology’ – literally, ‘words about words’ – allows Burke that provisional, sceptical transcendence which he elsewhere refers to as ‘the comic frame’. Thus, the Marxist ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’ stands in need of a meditative overview which can comprehend the ‘unintended by-products’ of technological progress.

The tragic ritual


In seeking to find and develop a ‘method’ adequate to all the implications and complications of being a ‘symbol-using animal’, Burke constantly returns us to the question of literary genre. As I have already indicated, all Burke’s speculations, no matter how wild and wonderful they may seem, are the ‘matters arising’ from his account of comedy and tragedy, of their connections and connotations. We have already considered his case for the ‘comic frame’; now, finally, we must acknowledge what is involved in the ‘tragic ritual’.

The earlier Burke speaks vaguely of the ‘collective poem’; the later Burke is much more precise about society as a drama. His theory of ‘dramatism’ complements his ‘logology’: it pursues the practical implications of the definition of humanity offered earlier, in particular the phrases ‘inventor of the negative’ and ‘goaded by the spirit of hierarchy’. Burke argues, no doubt following Hegel, Bergson and others, that human language introduces the capacity for negation into nature. This capacity is not just a matter of saying ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’, or ‘it is not’ as well as ‘it is’. Such denotative usage is far less significant than the ‘hortatory’ – that which offers strong advice about conduct. Moreover, within the language of exhortation, he is especially interested in what follows once ‘thou shalt not’ is understood as the dialectical accompaniment to ‘thou shalt’. ‘Dramatism’ analyses how a society, in being ‘moved by a sense of order’, will be ‘moralized by the negative’. In other words, in seeking the reassurance of ‘hierarchy’, human beings need some explanation when order is not maintained. The explanation tacitly accepted is the inability to keep the collective commandments (‘thou shalt not’). The device for simultaneously alleviating the consequent remorse and purging the error is the discovery of a ‘scapegoat’ to stand in for the group and take away its sense of pollution. Thus, the genre of tragedy, while no doubt being derived from a founding social ritual, is the key to a continuing social ritual:

…a dramatistic analysis shows how the negativistic principle of guilt implicit in the nature of order combines with the principles of thoroughness (or ‘perfection’) and substitution that are characteristic of symbol systems in such a way that the sacrificial principle of victimage (the ‘scapegoat’) is intrinsic to human congregation. The intricate line of exposition might be summed up thus: If order, then guilt; if guilt, then need for redemption; but any such ‘payment’ is victimage. Or: If action, then drama; if drama, then conflict; if conflict, then victimage. … Dramatism, as so conceived, asks not how the sacrificial motives revealed in the institutions of magic and religion might be ‘eliminated’ in a ‘scientific’ culture, but what new forms they might take. (34)



For the later Burke, it is no longer a difficulty to move from the figurative to the literal sense of ecology; indeed, it is inevitable. Thus, he proceeds, within the scope of the same page, to reflect as follows:

This view of vicarious victimage extends the range of those manifestations far beyond the areas ordinarily so labeled. Besides extreme instances like Hitlerite genocide, or the symbolic ‘cleansings’ sought in wars, uprisings and heated political campaigns, ‘victimage’ would include …the ‘bulldozer mentality’ that rips into natural conditions without qualms, the many enterprises that keep men busy destroying in the name of progress or profit the ecological balance on which, in the last analysis, our eventual well-being depends, and so on. (35)

Thus, the tragic ritual turns out to be the key to that ‘technological psychosis’ which Burke seeks to diagnose, once a ‘dramatistic’ philosophy of human motives is brought to bear upon it. Firstly, we have to recognise that the ritual of ‘congregation by segregation’ involves ‘identification’ of members of the group by finding their common cause against ‘the enemy, who serves a unifying function as scapegoat’.  (36) Secondly, we have to understand where ‘victimage’ ends:

It would be much better for us, in the long run, if we ‘identified ourselves’ rather with the natural things that we are progressively destroying – our trees, our rivers, our land, even our air, all of which we are a lowly ecological part of. For here, in the long run, a pious ‘loyalty to the sources of our being’ (Santayana) would pay off best, even in the grossly materialistic sense. For it would better help preserve the kinds of natural balance on which, in the last analysis, mankind’s prosperity, and even our mere existence, depend. But too often, in such matters, our attitudes are wholly segregational, as we rip up things that we are not – and thus can congratulate ourselves upon having evolved a way of life able to exhaust in decades a treasure of natural wealth that had been here for thousands of years. (37)



In his final years Burke became preoccupied with this logic, which he increasingly understood was the theme implicit in his earlier work. In a retrospective article written in 1972 he reflects:

…in studying the nature of order, I became more and more involved in the conviction that order places strong demands upon a sacrificial principle (involving related motives of victimage and catharsis). Thus, while still opting for comedy, I became fascinated by the symbolism of ritual pollution in tragedy. But during the last couple of years my engrossment has shifted to the evidence of material pragmatic pollution in technology. I loathe the subject, even as I persist in wondering what can possibly be done about it. Men victimize nature, and in so doing they victimize themselves. This, I fear, is the ultimate impasse. (38)


At which point we could bring our account of Burke to a close, acknowledging him to be a prophet of environmental doom. However, he was always a resilient thinker. Significantly, only two years after his acknowledgement of ‘the ultimate impasse’, he made his case for the power of literature to not only reflect but also resist the insane logic of ‘hyper-technologism’. It is worth considering here briefly for the way it deepens and extends the earlier view of the form and function of literature in the face of imminent catastrophe.

‘Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One’ is a defence of the literary genre associated with ‘rejection’ rather than ‘acceptance’. Here what is to be rejected is the world we now have, with its implications for the world that we might shortly have. If the human mind always wishes to takes projects through to ‘the end of the line’, and if it proves impervious to ‘perspective by incongruity’, then it will not rest until technology realises its full potential, even at the expense of the complete pollution and degradation of the planet. Burke’s proposed ecological satire would expose the unacknowledged agenda of our ‘culture of waste’: in its bid to create a technological heaven on earth, it will inevitably produce a hell. The dystopia would hence be called ‘Helhaven’. It would be a variant upon the traditional apocalyptic vision, as may be encountered in the Book of Revelation and in Dante’s Divine Comedy, with an appropriate shift of emphasis from sacred to secular. The saved would be the rich: that is, the very people whose material enterprises were responsible for the destruction of the earth would be the only ones able to separate themselves from its effects, by inhabiting a luxurious ‘culture bubble’ on the moon. The damned would be the poor, who would be forced to stay for the duration of the terminal phase of the planet’s life. Burke gets no further than sketching the vision of ‘Helhaven’, though he does find space to give ironic praise to Walt Whitman, whose pioneer spirit and meliorism would prove to be the inspiration behind the declarations of ‘the Master’ presiding over the demonic paradise. What is interesting is that he advocates satire as the appropriate genre for our age not only because there is so much that needs rejecting but also because it too goes to ‘the end of the line’, imaginatively, exaggerating what is already the case so that we might be alerted to its consequences: its terminological ambition parallels and parodies the technological. (39)

If both comedy and tragedy are ‘frames of acceptance’, then satire, according to Burke’s model of literary creation, arises from radical disaffection. Yet, dedicated as it is to ‘rejection’, it cannot in our time retain its traditional privilege of superior wisdom: ecological catastrophe implicates us all. The very idea that those who had profited from pollution might yet survive its effects, idling their time away in a ‘haven’ or ‘heaven’ built from the rewards of building a ‘hell’ on earth, is close enough to the existing situation (in which the rich have their rural retreats away from the urban noise and squalor they create) to be momentarily credible, but is absurd enough to remind us that that the future will most likely be inclusively infernal. Thus, the satire is intended to provoke us into the ‘collectivist’ spirit which his earliest writings had commended. As such, it gestures, paradoxically and painfully, beyond tragic resignation and towards the potential of the ‘comic frame’.

For, if tragedy is a way of accepting ‘some natural sorrow, loss, or pain’, in Wordsworth’s phrase, and ultimately death itself, it should not be allowed to countenance systematic oppression. In the face of such a challenge, the comic sense of incongruity is the preferable mode; it reminds us of the value of what tragic resignation might exclude from the picture. Satire, in Burke’s sketch for a dystopia, might serve as a reminder of the radical power of the comic attitude, even or especially when it is informed by anger. Certainly, despondent as he became in his later years, he never finally abandoned his central statement of preference, which he had once provided, typically, in the form of a footnote (nearly half of which is in parenthesis), in the course of talking about other things:

… Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the ‘laughing animal’, but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. (The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for proper recognition of our animality.) (40)


In the light of our previous discussion, we may take ‘comedy’ to comprehend ‘tragedy’ and to imply a sense of ‘ecological balance’, to which ‘the cult of comedy’ would be dedicated. We may then see ‘the cult of tragedy’ as a way of conniving in wilful imbalance. But of course, if we take the full force of the reference to ‘the holocaust’, that way of putting it seems rather too weak. The writer and analyst James Hillman takes the Nazi programme of extermination to be emblematic of all the ‘devastating enormities’ of our era, of the ‘vast displays of totalitarianism’: ‘burning cities, burning forests, homelessness and hunger. Gargantuan consumerism. Garbage barges, garbage dumps, dead fish, dead skies, and ageless species extinguished en masse.’  (41) In such a context, we may conclude that it is not only exponents of ecocriticism and green studies who should take very seriously indeed the ‘comic corrective’ of Kenneth Burke, as a demonstration of how the ‘victimization’ of both people and planet might be resisted.



1 Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (1937; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 150.

2 Geoffrey Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 91, 92, 94,

3 Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1983), pp. 62, 38.

4 Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change, p. 40

5 See Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 7, 104.

6 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of  American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 143ff.

7 Buell, The Environmental Imagination, p. 430.

8 Cheryll Glotfelty, ‘Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis’, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, eds Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm (Athens & London: University of Georgia Press, 1996), p. xvi.

9 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, p. 411.

10 William H. Rueckert, Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (1963; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 267.

11 Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement (1931; B erkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 112.

12 Burke, Counter-Statement, p 105.

13 For a comparison of the two thinkers, see Samuel B. Southwell, Kenneth Burke and Martin Heidegger (Gainseville: University of Florida Press, 1987).

14 For a sophisticated version of this charge, as applied to the early work, see Robert Wess, Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1987).

15 Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 69, 74.

16 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 167.

17 Burke, Permanence and Change, pp. 183-4.

18 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 271.

19 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 272.

20 Burke, ‘Introduction’, Attitudes Toward History (no page given).

21 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 232.

22 Burke, ‘Introduction’, Attitudes Toward History (no page given).

23 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, p. 41.

24 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 171, 173.

25 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 225-9.

26 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 378-9.

27 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 271-2.

28 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 271.

29 Cary Wolfe, ‘Nature as Critical Concept: Kenneth Burke, the Frankfurt School, and “Metabiology”’, Cultural Critique 18 (1991), p. 77.

30 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 224.

31 Burke, Permanence and Change, pp. 229-30, 235.

32 Kenneth Burke, ‘Definition of Man’, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p.16.

33 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 424-5.

34 Kenneth Burke, ‘Dramatism’, Communication: Concepts and Perspectives, ed. Lee Thayer (Washington: Spartan Books, 1967), p. 342.

35 Burke, ‘Dramatism’, p. 342.

36 Kenneth Burke, ‘Poetics and Communication’, Perspectives in Education, Religion and the Arts, eds. Howard E. Keifer & Milton K. Munitz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970), p. 413.

37 Burke, ‘Poetics and Communication’, pp. 413-4.

38 Kenneth Burke’, As I Was Saying’, Michigan Quarterly Review, 11 (1972), p. 26.

39 Kenneth Burke, ‘Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One’, Michigan Quarterly Review 13 (1974), pp. 307-37.

40 Burke, ‘Definition of Man’, p. 20.

41 James Hillman, ‘And Huge is Ugly’, Resurgence, no. 134 (May-June 1989), p. 4.

Hughes and Myth

Terry Gifford (ed.), Ted Hughes: New Casebook (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp 13-24


Hughes and Myth

Laurence Coupe



Though it is widely acknowledged that Ted Hughes’s work is ‘mythic’ in its breadth and depth, confusion may arise as to what exactly we mean by that word. This chapter sets out to clarify Hughes’s own understanding of mythology, to demonstrate his prowess as an interpreter of specific mythic forms, and to explore the connection he makes between myth and literature.

‘Blueprints for imagination’

The word ‘myth’ comes from the ancient Greek mythos, meaning ‘story’. A myth is a traditional story that is handed on over the years – sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia – and keeps being retold. It is a narrative that helps human beings to make sense of themselves and their relation to one another, to the natural world and to the spiritual realm. It is a founding narrative, an essential plot, which cannot be credited to any one individual but rather belongs to the whole community. Myths combine together to form a mythology, a body of stories that define a culture. This collective narrative is not to be assessed on grounds of truth or falsity: the point is whether it has power for its community.

Perhaps Hughes’s most straightforward statement on myth comes in the course of his extensive account of the mythology underlying the work of the most famous of English writers. Early on in his Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, he draws attention to the strongly ‘mythic’ strain in both the poems and the major plays. In doing so, he pauses to explain that the same word is applicable also to such diverse works as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Blake’s prophetic books, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, W.B. Yeats’s Wanderings of Oisin and T.S. Eliot’s poetry generally, ranging from ‘The Death of St Narcissus’ to The Waste Land:

In each of those poems listed, the whole subject matter is the image of a subjective event of visionary intensity […] It is only when the image opens inwardly towards what we recognise as a first-hand as-of religious experience, or mystical revelation, that we call it ‘visionary’, and when ‘personalities’ or creatures are involved, we call it ‘mythic’. (SGCP 35-6)[1]

In this light, we might say that ‘mythic’ for Hughes implies, firstly, vision, that is, the capacity to imagine that the world is charged with sacred grandeur, and secondly, a narrative unfolding of that vision.

As for Shakespeare’s ‘mythic’ interest, Hughes is not primarily interested in the use of myth as a standard mode of allusion. What interests him is the way we can trace a dual narrative lying hidden beneath his total oeuvre:

[he] strips the myth[s] of all identifiably mythic features, and secretes its mechanism within his plot[s], as he does with the two myths – of the Great Goddess and of the Goddess-destroying god – which are the theme of my argument here. (SGCB 2)[2]

Myth, for Hughes, is a mediation between the external and internal worlds, and between the material and spiritual dimensions, though often not recognisable at first reading. For Hughes, this is the basis and mode of operation of much of the greatest literature. Gods and goddesses may come in disguise, but their presence and power will always be felt.

So consistent was Hughes’s interest in myth and his conviction of its importance that he wrote two essays entitled ‘Myth and Education’. In the second of these, published in 1976, he argues forcefully that children should be introduced to their culture’s mythology as early as possible because myths are our ‘blueprints for imagination’ (WP 151). A blueprint is a plan of action; a myth, then, is not just some dusty old text, but the indispensable format for those symbolic acts by which we keep in touch with the sources of life. For Ted Hughes the works of art which we call ‘great’ are those in which that contact is felt most compellingly. Myth, as blueprint for imagination, has a healing power. Whenever the inner world has become divorced from the outer we experience ‘a place of demons’. Then myths demand retelling by the poets, whose function is far more than entertainment or diversion, but an imaginative reconciliation of both outer and inner worlds in a creative narrative (WP 151).

Kinds of myth

By my reckoning, there are four broadly different kinds of myth. They are sometimes hard to separate, but it is as well to bear them in mind as they each tell us something important. They are: creation myth, which tells us where we come from; fertility myth, which tells us how we relate to the natural cycle; deliverance myth, which tells us where we are going; and hero myth, which tells us what human qualities we value.[3] It is not to be expected that any one poet will consistently refer by name to the four categories of traditional plots just listed. For one thing, each of them has variant titles: for example, creation myth might also be known as ‘myth of origins’, or even ‘paradise myth’; again, deliverance myth might also be known as ‘salvation history’. But what I want to demonstrate here is that Hughes’s use of myth is comprehensive, and that each of the four kinds which I’ve listed does figure in his own theory of myth, which will help us understand their enactment in his poetic work.

Hughes and creation myth

Creation myth tells us how everything began. According to the late historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, humanity has been driven by the impulse of ‘eternal return’: we tell ourselves stories about how things were in the beginning, when the gods were in close contact with humanity. Given that it seems to be a universal conviction that the newly created world was in the beginning idyllic, human beings have always felt a deep ‘nostalgia for paradise’. In other words, myth is about the regaining of ‘sacred time’, known to the ancient Greeks as the Golden Age; in complementary fashion, it is also about the regaining of ‘sacred space’, known to the Greeks as Arcadia.[4] Hughes conveys the power and beauty of this vision of the newly created world in the opening poem of his translation of Metamorphoses, written by the ancient Roman poet Ovid (see CP 865-79).

Hughes’s writing on myth returns again and again to the biblical creation narrative and its momentous influence on English culture: the creation of the cosmos in six days and the serpent’s role in the temptation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall from the Garden of Eden. In his study of Shakespeare, he is particularly interested in the way the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the subsequent rise of Puritanism in the seventeenth, drew on the idea of a righteously omnipotent God who was not slow to take revenge on those who flouted his law. Repudiating what they saw as the pagan goddess-worship of Catholicism – with its reverence for the figure of Our Lady, mother of God, also known as the Virgin Mary – fundamentalist reformers and dissenters appealed to the masculine might of Jehovah. He was a transcendent figure whom they took to be ‘far removed from the sensational, dramatic adventure of what is thought of as “myth”’ (SGCP 13). And yet, Hughes reminds us, their God was in many ways reminiscent of Marduk, the mythic sky warrior of the Babylonians, who had defeated and destroyed the primordial goddess of the waters, Tiamat, thereby establishing cosmos and overcoming chaos.  Given that the Babylonian creation myth casts its shadow over the Hebrew, Hughes surmises, ‘Shakespeare was aware of the feelings behind this myth through the Bible’ (SGCP 16). It is a bold chain of association which Hughes is forging: from the Babylonian Marduk, to the Hebrew Jehovah, and to the aggressively fundamentalist Puritan religion of the early modern world, and so to the greatest writer of that or of any other era who responds to this goddess-destroying lineage in his plays. One does not read Hughes on myth if one wants a conventionally comfortable guide. But it does offer an insight into the function of myth in his own work, where goddess-denial can lead to trouble, for example.

In offering a new perspective on the imaginative logic of Genesis, and in justifying the rough and ready approach to scriptural authority and religious orthodoxy of the protagonist of his most famous mythic volume, Crow, Hughes draws on an alternative mythic tradition, that of the ‘trickster’ tale. The mischievous male, usually priapic, protagonist of this kind of story participates in the creation of the world, but is also associated with all the disasters which plague human existence. He straddles the boundary between cosmos and chaos. Thus many of these tales feature a marginal creature who survives against the odds on the fringes of human culture: for example, crow, coyote, wolf, fox. The mythology of the Haida people of the northwestern coast of North America features the exploits of ‘Raven’, a figure who is constantly causing trouble in his endless search for food, but whose very persistence enables him to lay out the land, establish the clan and bring light to both – all by accident. A parallel trickster is the West African (and then Caribbean) figure of ‘Anansi’: taking the form of a great spider, he is usually out to cause trouble but, as in all trickster myths, he inadvertently brings about the natural order of things.

Hughes is always very clear that he regards trickster mythology as a necessary corrective to the biblical narrative, which seems to present us with a thoroughly tamed nature. In his essay on his poem ‘Crow on the Beach’ he explains the background to his Crow volume and he presents the trickster as the agent of the energetic and unpredictable life-force (‘his high spirits and trajectory are constant’) that tests our cultural constructions to destruction (‘Cultures blossom round his head and fall to bits under his feet’), and so wholly appropriate to any attempt to revitalise the mythology of our civilisation (WP 240-1).

Hughes and fertility myth

Creation myth is implicitly cyclical. It suggests that humanity cannot help but dream of a return to the beginning, when a perfect creation emerged out of chaos. Both Hebrew and Babylonian myths are the source of ‘nostalgia for paradise’. (As we shall see in due course, later books of the Bible bring a more progressive pattern into play, but Genesis certainly encourages a desire for a return to Eden.) With fertility myth, the cyclical model is emphatic, as is the role of the female deity. This kind of narrative is particularly associated with the invention of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago. Before then, there had indeed been an idea of the earth as a nurturing mother, from which human beings emerged and to which they returned at death. However, it was with the practice of sowing and reaping crops that there developed a myth based on the cycle of vegetation, with the goddess at its heart.

The pattern is as follows. The fertility goddess is immortal, but her male consort, the fertility god, has to die annually in order to ensure the renewal of the cycle. He is killed in his prime, by order of the goddess; his body is dismembered and the parts scattered across the land; he is then born again in order to fertilise the goddess once more, thus ensuring that the crops flourish for another year. This pattern persisted with the rise of urban civilisations, the goddess and god taking on different forms throughout the ancient world: Isis and Osiris (Egypt), Inanna and Thammuz (Mesopotamia, Babylonia), Aphrodite/Venus and Adonis (Greece/Rome). The very title of Hughes’s second collection, Lupercal, refers to a Roman fertility festival, and perhaps its most celebrated lyric is ‘Hawk Roosting’ – a poem which Hughes has related to the Egyptian myth of Isis, the implication being that the hawk is Horus, the son and successor of Osiris the dying god.[5]

The fertility goddess, representing the essential power of nature, necessarily has a dual identity. As the source of both life and death, light and dark, spring and winter, fruition and drought, she may be seen as both a benign and a malign force, as both lover and destroyer, both mother and murderer. This double part is well understood by those with an investment in the myth, the natural cycle making little sense to them otherwise. Hughes, we might add, was early on inspired by the poet Robert Graves’s account of the complex nature of this female deity in The White Goddess.[6] Gaudete is a poetic narrative offering a variation on fertility myth, with the dying and reviving god played by one Nicholas Lumb in the village where he is vicar. Lumb is abducted into the underworld where he is asked to revive a dying goddess. The substitute wooden vicar back in the village has a rather literal idea of spreading the gospel of Love and in a comic parody gradually turns the Women’s Institute into a kind of coven. The original Reverend Lumb was mistaken for shamanic healer when he was abducted (not the role of a Church of England vicar, apparently), but when he merges in the west of Ireland he has acquired shamanic wisdom and insight, as revealed in the book of poems he has brought with him – the closing lyrics of the ‘Epilogue’ addressed to the elusive goddess.

The fertility god’s death guarantees the continuity of the natural cycle, ensuring that the community survives. But also, according to Sir James Frazer in his classic work of myth theory, The Golden Bough, he functions as a ‘scapegoat’. That is to say, by departing and disappearing into the realm of death he serves to carry off all traces of disease, corruption and pollution that might otherwise blight that community.[7]

In seeking to situate the underlying mythology of Shakespeare’s body of work, Hughes is particularly interested in the Graeco-Roman version of fertility myth, given that it is the subject of one of Shakespeare’s early poems. In an early rehearsal for the full-length study, namely the Introduction to his Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, Hughes expounds the significance of ‘Venus and Adonis’, which he relates to another long poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. Here we might pause to summarise these two works before seeing what Hughes makes of them. ‘Venus and Adonis’ retells the Roman (originally Greek) myth of the fertility goddess falling in love with a beautiful youth, who resists her advances, fleeing from her only to be savaged to death by a wild boar – this creature being the incarnation of Persephone, Venus’s shadow-self, her underworld other. ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ is Shakespeare’s version of another ancient Roman tale (not strictly mythic, but becoming so by association in this context). It concerns the sexual assault made by Prince Tarquin upon the chaste wife of his fellow-commander in the Roman army. Lucrece (or Lucretia) kills herself; Tarquin is banished, and the Roman monarchy comes to an end.

Hughes argues that the two texts provide the basis for the mythic ‘equation’ that runs through the major plays. He calls the four characters of these poems, Lucrece, Venus, Tarquin and Adonis, Shakespeare’s ‘four poles of energy’ that provide the focus for the stages of Shakespeare’s complete narrative cycle. Venus confronts Adonis, whereupon Adonis is killed by boar and is reborn, through a flower death, as Tarquin, whereupon Tarquin destroys Lucrece, and in doing so destroys himself and all order (WP 116). Hughes argues that Shakespeare’s plays explore these ‘poles of energy’ in all sorts of combinations, ultimately attempting to resist the deaths of Adonis and Lucrece.

The mythic equation is also the ‘tragic’ equation; and the tragedy is the result of the competing myths which were acted out in Shakespeare’s era. Tarquin represents the Jehovah-worshipping Puritan, whose creation myth tells him that it the transcendent, omnipotent God who is in charge, not the pagan goddess of nature. In his zeal he sets out to destroy her and the plays gradually tell the agonising story of the gradual defeat of Venus and her boar. But the shifting protean puritan forces through the plays (as through the whole nation in Shakespeare’s time, suggests Hughes) are ultimately self-destructive. Shakespeare’s tragic hero, the puritan Adonis, is possessed by the demon he rejects. He struggles to reconcile in himself the tensions between the four principles represented by himself, Tarquin, Venus and Lucrece and is inevitably torn apart (WP 116). We are not here interested in the details of Hughes’s account of Shakespeare’s mythic project; we are chiefly concerned with Hughes’s own preoccupation with the nature of myth, and with the myth of nature. His focus is on the way the male believer in the absolute male God seeks to destroy the female principle which, according to the model of fertility, informs the whole of the natural world.

Hughes and deliverance myth

Here we need to focus mainly on the Bible, as the kind of deliverance myth relevant to Hughes’s work is almost exclusively Judaeo-Christian in form and meaning. While creation and fertility myths honour the cyclical conception of time, deliverance myth offers a linear, progressive view. Jehovah may punish Adam and Eve by expelling them from the garden, and leave them to make their way through the wilderness, but he has a grand plan for their salvation. What we know as ‘the fall’ is only the beginning of a long collective adventure. In a later book of the Bible, namely Exodus, we read how Moses, guided by God, leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, where they have been enslaved, and guides them towards a ‘promised land’. The Christian Gospels of the ‘New Testament’ extend this deliverance myth by presenting Jesus as the fulfilment of the Exodus story: through his crucifixion and resurrection he frees all humanity from the constraints of sin and death. Hughes’s poem sequence Adam and the Sacred Nine is a moving version of the paradise/fall myth, with Adam learning from various birds how to love, and finally to be at home on, the earth.

True, some theorists of myth see Christianity as having associations with fertility myth. Jesus may be seen as a dying and reviving god, born in the winter (Christmas), sacrificed and reborn in the spring (Easter). The parallel is not coincidental: Christianity clearly has roots in some sort of nature cult. But the difference also needs emphasising: the resurrection of Jesus is once and for all, and the result is not merely that the vegetation cycle succeeds (though we can see the link to this pagan model in various festivals of the Christian calendar), but rather that humanity is ‘delivered’ into the safety of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, as described in the final book of the Bible, namely Revelation. In other words, the Jesus story in its entirety belongs to that category of deliverance myth which we call ‘apocalyptic’ (from the Greek word for ‘revelation’).

Hughes throughout his work shows himself to be deeply suspicious of the biblical idea of salvation as coming about through history rather than through a renewal of our contract with nature and the goddess. If he may be said to subscribe to his own ‘fall’ myth, the Judaeo-Christian project is very much part of it, together with the modern cult of progress, which for him is only a secular variant of the myth of deliverance (though one that does not know itself to be mythic). In this case, a crucial moment in the protracted fall from what Hughes calls ‘complete being’ is that of the Reformation. For it was the fundamentalist reading of apocalypse which inspired the Protestant reformers, and still more dramatically, their Puritan heirs to wage total war against the goddess.  In support of Hughes’s thesis, we might remind ourselves of the main scenario of the Book of Revelation. Most of the earth is laid waste, in preparation for the establishment of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, which is built out of gold and other precious materials and which is lit neither by sunlight nor moonlight but by the light of God. Though we are told that the ‘tree of life’ and the ‘river of life’ will flourish, it is quite clear that these have a strictly symbolic existence, serving chiefly to represent the spiritual transformation of the earthly paradise depicted in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Natural trees and rivers will have disappeared, or been transformed beyond recognition: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea […]’ (Revelation 21:1). With a fundamentalist reading of this text, the way was open for the legitimisation of a fiercely other-worldly faith, and with it that ruthless manipulation and exploitation of the earth which climaxes in modernity. So it is no surprise to find that there are several parodies of Genesis in Crow (‘Lineage’, ‘A Horrible Religious Error’, ‘Apple Tragedy’, ‘Snake Hymn’). There are also ironic meditations on the crucifixion (‘The Contender’) and on the apocalypse (‘Notes for a Little Play’, ‘Crow’s Account of the Battle’, ‘Crow’s Last Stand’). Interspersed with these are reflections on our abusive relationship with the great goddess (‘Crow and Mama’, ‘Revenge Fable’).

It is in the Shakespeare study that Hughes makes his case against the myth of deliverance, though not named as such. Being clear about Christianity’s debt to fertility myth, he is clear also that ultimately it represents a severing of our bond with nature. It is the destruction of the goddess, first by Jehovah to preside in Heaven, then by his and her son, the Puritan Christ, that sets in train the essential tragedy of Shakespeare’s narrative cycle: ‘What Shakespeare goes on to reveal is that in destroying her he destroys himself and brings down Heaven and Earth in ruins’ (SGCG 18). Christianity in this context may be seen as a religion rooted in fertility myth which eventually became divorced from those roots and began a long process of dissociation from the natural world, spurred on by an increasingly literal interpretation of its founding text, the Bible.

Hughes, then, repudiates what we are calling the myth of deliverance, and in particular its impact within modernity – early on with the Reformation and later on with the cult of progress, with unrestrained industrialisation, and what is euphemistically called ‘development’. His definitive statement is ‘The Environmental Revolution’, his review of Max Nicholson’s book of the same name. It is here that we see how his knowledge of myth and his passion for ecology inform each other. Hughes suggests that Western Civilization is still dominated by Old Testament notions that ‘the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use’. Because man is alienated from Mother Nature, the goddess, he is also alienated from his own inner nature. While Hughes uses the word ‘quest’ to describe the basic myth of the ideal life (WP 129), and while ‘quest’ is a word we would normally associate with hero myth – of which more very shortly – he is thinking primarily of that violent and destructive journey undertaken by God’s chosen people, with no sense of reconciliation or return, that we have referred to as the myth of deliverance.

There is hope, however. The artist – or, by analogy, the poet – may see something else, and guide us to it, whether in images that remind us of Eden, or the world of animals, or Pan, or nature’s force for regeneration even in the face of being poisoned by human activities (WP 130). All Hughes’s writing, whether directly or indirectly related to myth, is dedicated to ensuring that the germ of nature’s life not only survives but also flourishes. River is his celebration of the fertile natural world as the paradise (continually restored by death) that we thought we had lost – a vision of the given world as our one and only Eden.

Hughes and hero myth

I have left this category of narrative to the last because it is the most ambiguous: while it has a very specific, historically determined meaning, it can also be applied to a whole range of stories from different eras. On the one hand, then, it may be narrowly defined as that kind of myth which celebrates the rise of a warrior class in the later years of the second millennium BC. It represents the human ideal of that class, that culture. A male hero sets out on a quest, facing terrifying obstacles on the way, and proves his courage in combat, eventually returning home. Ancient Greece affords us many such tales: for instance, that of Perseus, slayer of Medusa, the Gorgon; or again, that of Hercules (or Herakles), famous for undertaking twelve labours, which included slaughtering not only the fabulous many-headed monster, the Hydra, but also a ferocious lion and a dangerous boar for good measure. Thus does a male hero prove himself in a patriarchal culture. More complex is the figure of Prometheus, the Titan who befriends humanity and steals fire from the gods on their behalf, thus facilitating human culture. As a punishment, Zeus has him chained to a rock, where he is perpetually tormented by a giant eagle tearing at his liver. His heroism lies in his refusal to give in or show signs of weakness. Hughes’s poem sequence Prometheus on his Crag is a visceral retelling of the famous myth, with the emphasis on not only what the hero endures but also on what he learns about the natural order.

On the other hand, however, hero myth is the most general kind of narrative we could possibly imagine. After all, every myth that has ever been narrated has one or more central characters who we might describe neutrally as ‘heroes’. Creation, fertility and deliverance myth: all are ‘heroic’, in that some figure, whether divine or human, achieves something. Thus, in the previous section we have noted Hughes’s  account of  ‘the Quest’, which may imply hero myth but which the poet can legitimately use to refer to that collective and progressive project which derives from the biblical myth of deliverance.

Less legitimate might appear Hughes’s application of the quest structure to that crucial role of every North American tribe, that of the shaman. Here again, though, he is strictly speaking accurate. For it is the shaman’s function to adventure in the spirit world – the dangerous flight of the imagination – to return with the healing gift of stories and poems and songs, and thereby restore the balance between culture and nature. In so doing, he may have affinity with the fertility god, but he may also be celebrated as the archetypal hero, the soothsayer of his tribe. This, Hughes, argued, was the basic experience of the poetic temperament we call ‘romantic’ and would, in a shamanizing society, give the role of shaman to the authors of Venus and Adonis, some of Keats’s longer poems, W.B. Yeats’ The Wanderings of Oisin and T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. The shamanic flight also ‘lies perceptibly behind’ many of the best fairy tales and behind myths – Hughes singles out those of Orpheus and Herakles – and behind such poetic epics as those of Gilgamesh and Odysseus (WP 58).

Moreover, if the shaman makes sense in terms of hero myth as well as fertility myth, the trickster makes sense in terms of hero as well as creation myth. Indeed, the trickster’s endless adventures, whether in aiding the construction of the world or in wreaking havoc, seem to Hughes to conform to the pattern of the hero’s journey. Taking up his idea that this is a character which represents the life force itself, Hughes concludes that the quest of the trickster is like ‘a master plan, a deep biological imprint, and one of our most useful pieces of kit’. Hughes sees trickster tales as a form of Tragicomedy in which this ‘demon of phallic energy’, carrying the spirit of the sperm, suffers for his misunderstandings, but is also capable of experiencing tragic joy (WP 241). It is not that Hughes is confusing categories of myth and blurring different mythic roles. Rather, he is demonstrating that mythology is a complex web of stories – as complex as that great web of being that we call ‘nature’.

Moreover, Hughes is writing as someone who has understood that we are living in extraordinary times, having lost our bond with the earth and our sense of the sacred. Hence, any mythmaking poet has, as it were, to start from scratch, building up the mythic connections as best he can. In the interview given on the occasion of the publication of Crow, he explained that he believed that Eliot, Joyce and Beckett were suffering and portraying the last phase of the disintegration of Christian civilization. After them came some writers who did not seem to belong spiritually to Christian civilization at all:

In their world Christianity is just another provisional myth of man’s relation­ship with the creator and the world of spirit. Their world is a continuation or a re-emergence of the pre-Christian world . . . it is the world of the little pagan religions and cults, the primitive religions from which of course Christianity itself grew.[8]

Cave Birds is an extension of the Crow myth, and a revision of the dying and reviving god featured in fertility myth, with the hero on a quest which involves the necessary disintegration of his ego before his reintegration in ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’ and his rebirth as a falcon. Thus it is that, in coming to write Crow and its extension Cave Birds – what we might call Hughes’s gesture towards the kind of myth that might be appropriate for our desolate, disconnected state of soul – he finds it appropriate to redefine what we mean by ‘hero’. The arrogance of the ancient warrior class, the fundamentalist conviction of the reforming Christian, the triumphalism of the modern progressive mind: these no longer suffice. Our hero must be the stripped-down figure of a creature with nothing left to lose. And finally there remains the question of whether the myth will be understood in its full healing potential. Will the newly humble, powerful, transfigured falcon, for whom ‘the dirt becomes God’, connect with and empower readers? ‘But when will he land / On a man’s wrist’ (CP 440). Here Hughes the reader of myth becomes inseparable from Hughes the writer of myth; but in both capacities, he makes us see how much myth matters because there is always a need for a retelling, a new version, an unanswered question about the mystery of the universe: ‘At the end of the ritual / up comes a goblin’ (CP 440).


[1] The second revised, paperback, edition of SGCB (1993) is quoted in this chapter.

[2] In quotations from Hughes throughout this essay I have respected his capitalisation, even where it may seem inconsistent.

[3] For a fuller discussion of these categories, see Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

[4] See Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Reality, trans. Philip Mairet (London: Fontana, 1968); Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (San Diego: Harcourt, 1959).

[5] Egbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Presss, 1980): 199.

[6] See Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, 2nd edn (London: Faber & Faber, 1999).

[7] For a comprehensive account of the role of the fertility god, including his sacrificial function, see Sir James George Frazer, The Illustrated Golden Bough, ed. Sabine McCormack (London: Macmillan, 1978).

[8]Faas, Ted Hughes: 205.


‘What are you reading?’ column

Contributions to the Times Higher Education ‘What are you reading?’ column, in which regular reviewers report on books they are currently interested in …


Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, edited by Scott L. Newstok (Parlor Press, 2007)

9 July 2009

Concentrating mainly on the tragedies, Burke demonstrates how they work as symbolic acts that force us to recognise and reconsider the motives of sacrifice, scapegoating and social hierarchy. For the sheer range of ideas, together with his capacity for audacious insight, he can be matched only by Coleridge. The introduction is one of the best short overviews of his thinking that I’ve read.


The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Three Rivers Press, 1999)

29 April 2010

I’ve been prompted by the recent death of Thomas Berry, the Christian ecologist who described himself as a ‘geologian’ rather than a theologian, to re-read The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Three Rivers Press, 1999). Here he guides us into the ‘Ecozoic Era’, during which we will take our modest and respectful place within the Earth community after centuries of destructive arrogance. The keys to our transformation will be not only imagination but also the rediscovery of ancient and native wisdoms. His chapter on the function of the university should be compulsory reading for vice-chancellors everywhere.


Steven Heine, Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, A Zen Master? (Continuum, 2009)

29 July 2010

Heine’s central idea is that for most of his career, Dylan has oscillated between two radically different world views: one based on duality, the other on non-duality. The latter is reminiscent of Zen – hence the subtitle – but Heine doesn’t want to leave things there. He demonstrates that in his more recent work, Dylan has found a ‘middle way’ that brings him closer to Zen than ever. This book could have been reductive, but I’m pleased to report that it is genuinely enlightening.


Rosaleen Duffy, Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong (Yale University Press, 2010)

4 November 2010

This is not an easy read. I don’t mean it’s difficult to follow the argument; I mean the argument is deeply disturbing. Attempts to deal with wildlife extinction by focusing on poachers and small traders are doomed, says Duffy, because the problem is Western consumerism. And it’s no use trying to salve our consciences with eco-tourism: that’s part of the problem, too. Everyone who cares about conservation should read this to discover an alternative model.


John Parham, Green Man Hopkins: Poetry and the Victorian Ecological Imagination (Rodopi, 2010)

23 December 2010

Amazingly, this is the first sustained study of Hopkins’ work from an eco-critical perspective. Parham’s general argument is that, if we are to confront the ecological challenge of our own age, we must stop fixating so much on Romantic ecology and start taking into account Victorian ecology, especially the ideas of Ruskin and Morris. He contends that Hopkins’ work is so complex and vital that it comprehends different strains of ecological thought with which we’re still coming to terms. A thoughtful and thought-provoking book.


David Ingram, The Jukebox in the Garden: Ecocriticism and American Popular Music Since 1960 (Rodopi, 2010)

17 March 2011

Leo Marx, in The Machine in the Garden distinguished between ‘popular and sentimental’ pastoral on the one hand, and the ‘imaginative and complex’ pastoral on the other. Ingram queries this distinction, and is certainly loath to make it within ‘pop’ itself. For instance, he refuses to dismiss the apparently naïve nostalgia for a rural past which informs the harmonies of folk, of country and of country rock, even while drawing our attention to the more discordant, and potentially more ecologically challenging, sounds of avant-garde dystopian rock, of indie music and of hip-hop. This book works both as survey and speculation. As such, it invites us to rethink music that is all too often taken for granted.


Patrick Curry, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction (Polity, 2011)

25 August 2011

This significantly expanded second edition is more helpful than ever. It demonstrates that without addressing the question of human overpopulation, without educating ourselves in traditional ecological wisdom and without developing a ‘post-secular’ spirituality, we’re likely to produce only more and more hot air (pun intended). Ultimately, it all comes down to whether we accept the intrinsic worth of non-human nature, and how we need to behave once we do. Indispensable.


Faye Hammill, Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2010)

29 September 2011

From Jane Austen to Sofia Coppola, Hammill traces the shifting meanings of an elusive quality. I’ve been impressed by her astute discussion of the paradoxes involved in the attempt to live artfully, not least the way artifice implies authenticity and vice versa. Relating her theme to topics as various as sensibility, pastoral, nostalgia, decadence, glamour and camp, she has made me realise just what an unsophisticated notion of ‘sophistication’ I had.


Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches, edited by Axel Goodbody and Kate Rigby (University of Virginia Press, 2011)

24 Nov 2011

Ecocriticism is often regarded as something that Americans do best. But in Europe, ‘green studies’ is becoming much more confident, and conscious of its rich tradition. This useful and significant volume reminds us how much we still have to learn from European Romanticism: a point made by Kate Soper with her usual clarity. It also makes some fascinating connections: for instance, between Blake and Deleuze, and between D.H. Lawrence and Heidegger. With material both by and on Irigaray, plus musings on Bakhtin, we have here a useful and significant volume.


David Blakesley, The Elements of Dramatism (Longman, 2002)

26 July 2012

Kenneth Burke is the only literary theorist I’ve read who has transformed my way of looking at the world. His central theory of ‘dramatism’, which treats language as ‘symbolic action’ and literature as ‘equipment for living’, is presented here in clear prose with a range of thought-provoking examples. I return to this book regularly: it’s the most accessible exposition of Burke’s ‘comic corrective’ to human folly which I know.


Grevel Lindop, A Literary Guide to the Lake District (Sigma, 2005)

9 August 2012

Visiting this area is so much more interesting when you think, for instance, about Coleridge’s moonlight walk over Helvellyn to read Christabel to the Wordsworths at Grasmere … or Dickens and Wilkie Collins’ ascent of Carrock Fell (Collins managing to sprain his ankle) … or Ruskin’s purchase of Brantwood without having seen it because he loved Coniston Water so much. Both erudite and entertaining, poet Grevel Lindop makes an ideal travelling companion.


Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Souvenir Press, 2009)

23 August 2012

I always go back to Watts with a sense of relief, and I always come away with a sense of wonder. Way ahead of his time (the book was first published in 1966), he moves with ease between Eastern religion and Western science in order to convey what it might be like to see through the ‘hallucination’ that one is ‘a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin’. Writing without jargon and wearing his learning very lightly, he is a joy to read.


Susan Rowland, The Ecocritical Psyche: Literature, Evolutionary Complexity and Jung (Routledge, 2012)

20 September 2012

The author contributes to the greening of literary theory by showing how Jung’s ideas can help us celebrate the human imagination as an aspect of the endless creativity of more-than-human nature. Exploring works as diverse as The Tempest, Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden, she reveals how literature may serve to keep us in vital connection with the body and the unconscious, and so with the Earth itself. A fascinating book, it is also beautifully written.


Peter Barry, Literature in Contexts (MUP, 2007)

18 October 2012

The author challenges a prevailing tendency in recent literary theory: to reduce the ‘text’ to a ‘context’ of historical associations which takes one further and further away from the imaginative challenge of the work itself. This ‘contextualism’, by subordinating the intrinsic merit of the text to endlessly extrinsic speculation, ends up missing the point of what is being studied. Barry demonstrates his alternative: to focus on the text, while bringing in contexts which are genuinely literary. A bracing argument, well sustained.


Jeffrey Wainwright, The Reasoner (Carcanet, 2012)

16 May 2013

I’m not one for self-consciously intellectual verse, but this isn’t that. Rooted in the everyday stuff of existence, it’s a series of meditations on the discrepancy between words and world which revitalises our most common clichés and in doing so offers a sustained defamiliarisation of experience. Like King Lear, Wainwright’s ‘reasoner’ is someone driven to take upon himself the mystery of things, and the result is deeply affecting. This is a volume which I’d recommend to the very people who might be put off by its title.


Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method (University of California Press, 1966)

3 October 2013

In these essays, Burke offers his most accessible account of the way human beings use words to cope with situations, and how they so often abuse them in their attempt to subdue nature, to maintain hierarchy and to pursue perfection – with literature usually, but not always, offering the necessary corrective.


John Hughes, Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (Ashgate, 2013)

14 November 2013

Hughes rejects the familiar idea of a Dylan who adopts a series of ‘masks’, behind which he hides his true motives. Rather, we are told, the singer enacts a continual sense of indeterminacy and contingency, so that in refusing all identity he challenges our own. His creativity is a form of radical evasion, by which self and substance are deconstructed. In this light, Hughes offers an intriguing account of the key albums of Dylan’s first and most fruitful decade of invention.


Philip D. Beidler, Scriptures for a Generation: What We Were Reading in the 60s (Georgia UP, 1994)

12 December 2013

I wish I’d discovered this fascinating handbook before I wrote Beat Sound, Beat Vision, my study of the influence of the Beat movement on songwriters of the 1960s. It would have, firstly, assured me that I was on the right track with the Beat connection (there are entries on Kerouac, Ginsberg & co) and, secondly, confirmed my instinct that the ‘counterculture’ owed a great deal to that visionary tradition which, including the Beats, goes back to William Blake.


John Williams, Stoner (Vintage, 2012)

7 March 2014

This novel made little impact when it was first published in 1965, but deservedly it is now a best-seller. Never has the malice, hypocrisy and pettiness of the academic world been more painstakingly delineated; but never has the importance of reading, learning and teaching been more powerfully conveyed. Though many of us find it increasingly hard to function in the current university system, Williams’ celebration of a decent, dedicated lecturer makes it seem worthwhile.


Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)

20 March 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about the poet Edward Thomas lately, trying to come to terms with his subtle, intriguing insight into the relationship between humankind and the natural world. Macfarlane’s book about walking is also a book about Thomas, and it captures his spirit more vividly than a conventional critical study could do. An absorbing meditation on how we make contact with the landscape, it deserves to be read alongside Thomas’s own nature writing, which in turn deserves to be read alongside Thomas’s verse.


Nicholas Royle, First Novel (Jonathan Cape, 2012)

April 2014

Having only just finished reading this book, I feel as though I ought to go back through it to make sure I’ve not missed a trick. This is an absorbing tale which mixes metafiction, mystery and murder. It’s certainly a gripping read, but it also arouses critical curiosity. Though I don’t usually like novels about writing novels, I was hooked by this one.


Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World (Cornell UP, 1981)

30 October 2014

It’s thirty years since I read this, and if anything it seems more relevant than ever. Berman outlines the ‘disenchantment’ which set in with ‘the Cartesian paradigm’ and which has only deepened since – separating mind from body, humanity from nature, knower from known. We need, he argues, to rediscover the holistic vision of animism, the earliest form of religion. But ‘reenchantment’ cannot be a simple return, and Berman makes a convincing case for ecology as the unifying model for our era.


Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Abacus, 2013)

9 April 2015

Initially put off by the sheer length of this novel, I soon realised that it was going to be as rewarding as my favourite monuments of fiction, whether by Dickens or by Dostoevsky. The title alludes to a 17th-century painting of a beautiful bird chained to its perch: a work of art that dignifies, illuminates and redeems the life of such a fragile, suffering creature. The novel does likewise in recounting the struggle of a contemporary American teenager to survive amid the chaos and cruelty of circumstance. Stunning.


Tim Lott, The Last Summer of the Water Strider (Scribner, 2015)

20 August 2015

Set in the early 1970s, the story concerns a 17-year old, significantly called Adam, who is forced to enter the world of experience when he witnesses his mother’s death. He is then sent to stay with his uncle Henry Templeton – a character whom Lott bases on the self-proclaimed ‘spiritual entertainer’ of the hippie era, Alan Watts. Despite being deeply flawed, Henry helps Adam awaken to a whole new way of seeing the world. An absorbing and atmospheric read.


David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

27 August 2015

This study is unconventional in format, consisting as it does of a vast variety of anecdotes and assessments of the fiction writer J.D. Salinger, most famous for The Catcher in the Rye. About 200 interviews have been conducted, and together they paint a much more complex picture of the man than a conventional biography might manage. His traumatic wartime experiences, his absorption in the philosophy of Vedanta, his unwitting influence on Mark Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon: it’s all here, but with no forced coherence.


Martin Amis, Experience (Jonathan Cape, 2000)

28 January 2016

This unconventional autobiography essentially consists of three alternating narratives. The first is a remarkably good-humoured account of the author’s dental ordeals, which the press took so much pleasure in misreporting. The second concerns his troubled, often embarrassing, relationship with his famous father. The third is a commemoration of the short life of his favourite cousin, who was murdered by the diabolical Fred West. The way that the author moves between these interspersed stories without misjudging the tone is remarkable.





Reading and Writing

Robert A. Segal & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), A Vocabulary for the Study of Religion, Volume 3 (Leiden & Boston: Brill Press, 2015), pp 196-202.


Reading and Writing



This article offers an overview of the relationship between writer and reader, as understood from the ancient world to the present day. It traces this relationship through Greek philosophy, Elizabethan poetics, eighteenth-century criticism, and so to Romanticism and its legacy. It then addresses the twentieth-century attempt to put the writer and reader in their place, before commending the contribution of one particular thinker—a Christian philosopher—to the debate. 


The relationship between reading and writing might seem natural and inevitable: writers write so that readers can read. Over the centuries, however, secular literary theory in the West has returned again and again to the issue of what that relationship involves and, more specifically, what effect the writer’s efforts have on the reader.

Early Views

Our starting point must be ancient Greece, and the radical disagreement between the philosopher Plato and his pupil Aristotle. One of the reasons that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic was that their works encouraged indulgence in emotions rather than a state of contemplative reason. Aristotle’s response was his theory of “catharsis”, which he formulated in the course of his account of the structure and function of tragic drama. Tragedy, he proposed, necessarily aroused two main emotions—“pity” (for the suffering protagonist) and “fear” (of the power of the gods who administered his or her punishment)—but with the very purpose of purging the audience of those emotions by the end of the play. Even though the events performed on stage were illusory (an actor playing a king in a story that may never have happened, for example), the result had a healing effect on the lives of those who witnessed them. This impact was succinctly summarised in the words of the English poet John Milton, who produced his own Christian version of classical tragedy in Samson Agonistes (1671): the desired state was “calm of mind, all passion spent.”

It might be said that the whole history of literary theory goes back to the disagreement between Plato and his pupil. Certainly, Aristotle’s defence of literature on the grounds that it has a beneficial impact on the reader has been repeatedly invoked in various forms over the millennia. The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney may have been conveying the wisdom of his own age when, in his Defence of Poesy (1595), he stated that the point of poetry was “both to delight and to teach” (Sidney 1968: 9); but he was also invoking classical authority, given that his statement was based on sentiments uttered in the ancient world by the poets Ovid and Horace, themselves very much aware of Aristotle’s thesis.

Of course, the very claim that literature improves readers by presenting them with an inspiring illusion only begs the question of how far literature tells the truth about reality. We are not here directly concerned with this issue of “mimesis”, or representation, but it relates to the reader’s dilemma: How much trust should she or he place in the author’s words? Sidney believed that that trust should be absolute, for the poet improves upon the reality we know: “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as divers poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden” (Sidney 1968: 7). Hence it will be a foolish reader who looks to the writer for factual, as opposed to imaginative truth: “Now, for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth” (Sidney 1968: 733).

The principle at which Sidney is hinting here is what he refers to elsewhere in his Defence as “feigning”. That this was a popular notion of the period is evident from the fact that four years later, Shakespeare had one of his comic fools, Touchstone, declare: “the truest poetry is the most feigning” (As You Like It, III.iii.15). That creative writers ‘feign,’ that is, invent or pretend, means that their works have to be taken on faith by the reader, with the hope that the benefits will be sufficient to make the act of reading worthwhile. In the words of the Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose admiration of Shakespeare’s art knew no bounds, it is necessary to adopt “that willing suspension of disbelief … which constitutes poetic faith” (Coleridge 1971: 248).

Before the Romantics, however, English criticism of the earlier eighteenth century—what we often refer to as the neo-classical period—had produced its own model of literature, rather more measured and sober than Sidney’s. “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”: so wrote Samuel Johnson, the great spokesman for critical common sense in that period (Johnson 1984: 536). His own preoccupation being endurance rather than enjoyment, Johnson famously objected to Shakespeare on the grounds that he did not offer improvement for his readers: in short, that his plays lacked “moral purpose”. This in turn prompted Johnson to state what he took to be a general truth: “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place” (Johnson 1968: 71). Through those words we can intuit the confidence which the neo-classical period had in the idea of a culture of shared values, a public sphere of agreed assumptions—what Johnson encapsulated in his famous phrase, “the common reader.”

However, there being in most cases a considerable distance between the author sitting down to write and the reader sitting down to read—in some cases, several centuries—the problem had to be addressed of how far the reader’s interpretation may legitimately depart from the author’s text. Writing not long before Johnson, the poet Alexander Pope gave the following advice in his versified “Essay on Criticism”: “In every work, regard the writer’s end / Since none can compass more than they intend” (Pope 1963: 152). It sounds eminently reasonable to say that readers should not, for example, read Milton’s Paradise Lost in order to find out about gardening (though the descriptions of the garden of Eden might please them); but is the reader always to be constrained by what he or she knows of “the writer’s end”?


The era of Romanticism, which departed so radically from the critical assumptions of the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, was if anything even more preoccupied with the notion of the ‘authority’ of the author than the neo-classical era had been. This in turn had implications for the way the reader should regard him or her. With the Romantics, the idea of the author as solitary genius came to the fore; and with it, the idea of the reader as initiate worshipping at the shrine of creativity. The poet and painter William Blake famously declared to a correspondent in 1799: “You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men” (Blake 1988: 702). Only those of strong disposition, who are willing to make the effort to follow the trajectory of the author’s majestic imagination, need apply for the role of reader.

How far that imagination should follow its own laws is another matter. If it is given total freedom, the result may be confused and obscure; if it is constrained too much by form and decorum, the result may be dull and obvious. The Romantic poets pondered this dilemma at some length. When William Wordsworth joined with his friend Coleridge to produce a volume called Lyrical Ballads in 1798, it met with incomprehension. This was due to their refusal to imitate the “poetic diction” of their predecessors, and their desire to celebrate the earthy, passionate life of rural folk. Their audacious decision to explore the psychological depths of their subjects, and of themselves, produced some unsettling verse which was received badly by the critics. Wordsworth felt obliged to set out the two authors’ intentions in his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which appeared two years later. In doing so, he developed his ideas about the relationship between writing and reading.

It is in this preface that Wordsworth famously defines the poet as “a man speaking to men.” This definition in itself would hardly have offended Pope and Johnson. However, he has no sooner offered it than he qualifies it significantly: “He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than one supposed to be common among mankind …” (Foakes 1968: 35). What Wordsworth is trying to do is reconcile a model of linguistic communication, whereby the writer addresses the reader directly as an equal, with a model of imaginative consummation, whereby the writer’s genius moves him or her to use language in a way that the reader never could. The import of the latter model is that, if that reader is prepared to surrender to the writer’s spell, she or he may catch something of that “spirit of life” which informs the poem.

Imaginative consummation is what Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge came to believe was the more important characteristic of poetry. Indeed, the figure of the “man speaking to men” did not feature significantly in the latter’s extensive speculations in the years following Lyrical Ballads. His preoccupation in Biographia Literaria (1817) is with the very name and nature of ‘imagination.’ What he meant by it may be briefly conveyed by a phrase from one of his most famous poems “Dejection: An Ode,” which he wrote fifteen years earlier. Here he laments the decline in his own loss of formative creativity, even while seeking to define that power: Every moment of despair that he experiences “Suspends what Nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination” (Coleridge 1971: 107).

The idea that great poetry works according to a quasi-divine force (“Nature” for Coleridge being a sacred totality), which enables us to find pattern and meaning in our experience, is at odds with Wordsworth’s more modest claim. Wordsworth may regard the writer as possessing superior faculties, but he assumes that he has a duty to speak as directly as possible to the reader. Coleridge may believe that all human beings are capable of imagination, but he does not believe that the poet’s privileged access to the “shaping spirit” should be compromised due to an assumed demand for immediate sense. Hence his two most famous poems, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”, are celebrated not for their communicative power so much as for their elusive and haunting beauty. The reader of these poems must not expect an easy journey or a conveniently packaged message. For the poet’s obligation is to his “shaping spirit,” which moves in a mysterious way, not to the casual reader seeking diversion.

Coleridge’s “shaping spirit” and Wordsworth’s “man speaking to men” each fostered a strain of nineteenth-century thinking about literature. The “shaping spirit” led ultimately to the aesthete who practises “art for art’s sake.” The “man speaking to men” led to the Victorian sage who offers moral advice to his age. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold united both strains. In “The Study of Poetry” (1880), he argued that the decline of religious faith meant that literature itself was filling the void, both as moral guide and as aesthetic refuge: “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.” (Arnold 1964: 47). There could not be a more explicit case for the idea that the writings of great minds had a beneficial effect on its readers.

The Twentieth Century

The relationship between writers and readers, far from being hereafter taken for granted, was debated at length in the twentieth century. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), the Anglo-American poet and critic T.S. Eliot suggested that the “individual talent” meant nothing without the “tradition” to which it belonged, even while that talent might extend that tradition, or else help us appreciate it anew. On this basis, he advocated a doctrine of “impersonality”, which stated that the person who writes the poem should be of no interest to the reader. Speculation about the state of mind, heart or soul of the author was futile: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (Eliot 1975: 43). Effectively, Eliot had offered a rebuke to the Romantic manifesto articulated by Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Eliot was also implicitly querying Arnold’s idealistic claims for the impact of poetry, even though he himself revered “tradition” in a quasi-religious manner.

By the time we get to the North American movement of the mid-twentieth century known as the New Criticism, all talk of the writer’s aims in writing and of the reader’s benefits in reading was becoming suspect. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley produced two uncompromising essays: “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) and “The Affective Fallacy” (1949). The first of these argues that the intention of the author is “neither available nor desirable” as a standard for judging the success of a work of literature. The work should be read objectively, in its own right, and should be assessed only on intrinsic grounds (see Wimsatt 1954: 3-20). If the author’s life is banished from his own poem in that first essay, the second essay banishes the reader’s life from the act of reading: to equate the meaning of the poem with its psychological impact on the reader is to surrender to “impressionism and relativism.” It does not matter what various people of different times and places have discovered in a poem; what matters is the poem itself (see Wimsatt 1954: 21-39).

Though New Criticism was based in the USA, it had been anticipated in England by such works as I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929), which resulted from Richards’ experience of seeking responses from his Cambridge students to poems that were provided without attribution of author, or even date. Richards had been shocked by a general failure to understand what the poems were about, let alone recognise the importance of tone, imagery, and so forth. He set himself the task of outlining a proper method for analysing literature, which this and other books of his laid out. A younger Cambridge academic, F.R. Leavis, was initially much influenced by Richards’ “practical criticism,” but subsequently recuperated the Romantic idea of the great author. The genius who expressed his or her affirmation of ‘life’ (a word Leavis never tired of using), would thereby encourage in the reader a parallel affirmation. Taking his career as a whole, we may say that Leavis owed far more to Arnold than he ever did to Richards.

Leavis died in the 1970s, at about the time when French literary theory had begun to encroach upon English academic criticism. No doubt due to an entrenched empiricism, the latter had been slow to respond to structuralism, which offered a highly abstract key to all possible sign-systems. It saw all language, including the literary use of it, as a self-perpetuating system of signification rather than as a means of individual expression. Roland Barthes, who had early on been an exponent of structuralism, did not begin to have any impact in England or the United States until he took the structuralist approach to its limit, thus indirectly providing a manifesto for what became known as post-structuralism. In his essay “The Death of the Author” (1968), he might seem to be simply restating the New Critical orthodoxy that the writer is not a legitimate reference point for the reader who wishes to understand the writer’s work. Again, to demonstrate how an individual author relies on the collective code of language was already acceptable structuralist practice. However, here Barthes is going much further.

Echoing the “deconstruction” of Jacques Derrida, which challenges the idea of a fixed meaning, and anticipating the “reader-response theory” of Stanley Fish, which challenges the idea of a fixed text, he subverts simultaneously the idea of fixity and the idea of authority, which he sees as synonymous. As the writer disappears from view, readers are free to engage with the language of the text in any way they choose; there are no constraints, because there is no author/authority. Instead of a stable text, the product of the writer’s mind, we are dealing with unstable ‘texture’ – with ‘writing,’ a tissue of signs which has no hidden ‘secret’ to reveal: “To give a text an Author [sic] is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” The reader, by contrast, is a far less predictable entity, and so a more promising figure altogether  — one who may reconstruct the text just as he or she wants. Thus: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Newton 1988: 157).

If we no longer feel obliged to “regard the writer’s end,” in Pope’s words, then an obvious danger is an anarchy of interpretation; Barthes was fully prepared to run that risk. Anglo-American criticism was not prepared to go all the way with Barthes, however. In Structuralist Poetics (1975), Jonathan Culler seemed to concede a good deal to post-structuralism by focusing on the reader, but he did so only in order to seek a new sense of order: the need, as he saw it, to delineate the nature of “literary competence”, which meant formulating the legitimate “conventions” by which readers made sense of texts (Culler 1975: 258). However, Culler’s assumption was that these readers were affiliated to an existing, stable institution, namely a university, in which consensus was essential to the well-being of the academic community. In his later work, Culler made much more allowance for the variety of interpretation, and the fact that readers of different times and places would read the same text differently.


Ricoeur’s Discourse Theory

Legitimacy and variety of interpretation are issues that have long since been addressed in the study of the Bible, but rather than provide a lengthy overview of the development of biblical study in relation to secular literary theory, it might be useful to look briefly at one particular contribution to secular literary theory which is informed both by scriptural scholarship and religious faith. I am referring to the work of the Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Ricoeur more than anyone addressed the relationship between the writer and the reader, and the status of the text which lies, as it were, between them.

Reacting against the structuralist model of language as system and linguistic unit as word, Ricoeur opts for that of discourse theory, which sees language as event and linguistic unit as sentence. As he reminds us, “the first and fundamental feature of disourse” is that “it is constituted by a series of sentences whereby someone says something to someone about something” (Ricoeur 1991: 82-83). This function is not radically altered when we turn from spoken communication to literary communication; but of course, the place and function of the text has to be addressed—and Ricoeur duly does so.

As we have seen, Romanticism gave us the idea of the writer as genius, with whom the reader seeks to empathise, hoping to experience the world in the same way, albeit at a lesser intensity. But New Criticism reminded us that it is only the author’s work, and not the author’s state of mind, that is available to us; and structuralism raised the question of whether language is a mode of individual expression at all. Thereafter post-structuralism gave full approval for the reader to respond to the text with complete disregard for any authority, authorial or otherwise. Ricoeur may be seen as comprehending these issues by addressing “the very historicity of human experience,” which involves “communication in and through distance” (Ricoeur 1991: 76). Hence he articulates the dialectic between “participation” and “distanciation”, between “understanding” and “objectification”, between the response to the event of “saying” and the recognition of the fixity of the “said”—a fixity which in literature is known as the text (Ricoeur 1991: 78).

When discourse passes from speaking to writing, we find that meaning becomes much more problematical but also much more promising. As Ricoeur reminds us: “writing renders the text autonomous with regard to the intention of the author. What the text signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant …” (Ricoeur 1991: 83). To recognise this, however, is not necessarily to abandon any notion of reference, to confine ourselves to an arid description of the language of the text, or to surrender to interpretative chaos. Ricoeur, drawing on his knowledge of hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation, asks to us to take as our focus “the world of the text”. It is this notion that permits us to attribute referential meaning to literary works. For “there is no discourse so fictional that it does not connect up with reality” (Ricoeur 1991: 85). But such discourse refers not to the first-order reference that we get in spoken discourse, when the speaker is able to point to a reality which is common to both him and the listener. Rather, we are dealing with a second-order reference which offers a much richer sense of reality.

Essentially, what is at stake here is a new model of the reader: one which must be clearly distinguished from the freewheeling and high-handed figure celebrated by Barthes. Consider Ricoeur’s own, very careful formulation of what is involved in the act of ‘appropriation’ which the reader performs. Despite the connotations of this term, what Ricoeur envisages is as far from interpreting the text just as one pleases as it is from expending all one’s energies on locating the supposed meaning of the author. “Ultimately, what I [as reader] appropriate is a proposed world” (Ricoeur 1991: 87-88). This is “not behind the text, as a hidden intention would be, but in front of it, as that which the work unfolds, discovers, reveals. Henceforth, to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text.” Though the reader is destabilised, the point is that it is the text which is doing the destabilising: “It is not a question of imposing upon the text our finite capacity for understanding, but of exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self, which would be the proposed existence corresponding in the most suitable way to the world proposed” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).  To apprehend such an existence demands a risk, or wager, of interpretation on the part of the reader: “just as the world of the text is real only insofar as it is imaginary, so too it must be said that the subjectivity of the reader comes to itself only as it is placed in suspense, unrealized, potentialized. In other words, if fiction is a fundamental dimension of the reference of the text, it is no less a fundamental dimension of the subjectivity of the reader. As a reader, I find myself only by losing myself” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).

Most people consulting the present volume will no doubt catch the allusion in that last statement to the Gospels. It is no coincidence. Ricoeur’s model of interpretation for secular texts works just as well for sacred texts. For in both cases, the goal of the reader is not to recover an authorial meaning that precedes the act of writing. Rather, it is to enter into the “world” of the text and to allow the realm of the “possible” to enter one’s life. In short, the end of the act of reading is revelation, which Ricoeur would have us conceive in the fullest sense, with all the Biblical connotations in play.

But even if one wishes to refuse the spiritual aspect of interpretation, one can still  agree that Ricoeur offers a most satisfying account of the relationship between writing and reading, event and understanding, even taking into account the brief history of that relationship which we have here provided.



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