Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The misfit who is chosen

Unloved misfits 

Used for centuries as beasts of burden, strong and capable, yet ugly and uncherished, donkeys and their near cousins asses (the crossbred offspring of a pony and a donkey) are in many areas of the world rather like we regard electricity – vital but taken for granted.

An unlikely subject therefore for a poet to focus on. Yet, at the start of the twentieth century GK Chesterton did just that, creating in The Donkey a simple ballad with a surprising twist.

When fishes flew and forests walked  
   And figs grew upon thorn,  
Some moment when the moon was blood  
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,  
The devil’s walking parody  
   On all four-footed things.

Many suffering from body dysmorphia might identify with the Donkey’s self-description as having ‘ears like errant wings’ and a ‘monstrous head’. It likes neither the way it looks nor the ‘sickening cry’ of its voice. It regards itself as a primeval beast, a throwback to an unsophisticated, ungainly world, an animal which has remained stubbornly uncivilized despite the progress of the millennia.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,  
   I keep my secret still. …

As such it feels an outsider, a misfit in a slick world, unable to curtail its desires and self-expression to fit the mores of modern society. Because it its ‘crooked will’ others have rejected the Donkey, mocked it, ill-treated it and punished it (the scourge was a multi-strand whip with sharp stones or twists of metal designed to tear the flesh from whatever was being beaten).

Hidden joy?

But, amazingly, this Donkey has a secret hope, a memory that outweighs all its privations.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:  
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

It remembers going for a noisy walk…..

That’s it?!

One hour trotting near palm trees is enough to make up for society’s – and the Donkey’s self – hatred?

Missing the point 

Well, if we leave it there, we have entirely missed Chesterton’s point. But to feel the punch of the poem, we you need to know a bit more about the subtext (see previous blog, 4.3.15).

The Donkey’s ‘sweet’ hour was the occasion related in the New Testament when, a week before he died, Jesus chose an ass to sit on and ride into the city of Jerusalem. He was greeted rapturously at the time, with people waving palm branches and throwing them down, along with their cloaks, to create a ‘royal causeway’ for the man they anticipated as king (an event commemorated by Christians as Palm Sunday). An easy retelling of the story can be found at Crossref-it.info or you can read the original in Matthew 21:1-11.

For the Donkey, the amazing fact was that a monarch (the ruler of all the earth according to Christian belief) chose this rejected, unattractive beast for the greatest honour it could ever experience. Chesterton portrays Jesus choosing the unloved and unlovable ass and touching its life with glory.

The poet is reminding us that those we overlook or shy away from are actually special. If you think you are the misfit, remember what this simple poem tells you.

Palm Sunday is celebrated this weekend.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Western cultural influences on literature

Getting ‘in the know’

Don’t you just hate it when there is a facebook or text conversation full of abbreviations you aren’t quite sure about? A while ago the UK Prime Minister famously mistook LOL to mean ‘Lots Of Love’ when actually those ‘in the know’ realised that LOL stood for ‘Laugh Out Loud’. David Cameron was, accidently, not sending affection but mockery.

In almost every written communication there is a context which helps the reader to make sense of the words, and often a subtext - an assumption by the writer that the reader shares an understanding as to what is being referred to.


For example, in one of Wilfred Owen’s poems, Hospital Barge, the reader of the poem understands that it is written from the perspective of a First World War soldier (Owen himself) in northern France, enjoying rare time away from trench bombardment. Sitting by a canal, he observes a barge take away those wounded at the Western Front – that is the context.


The departure of the wounded, symbolised by the scream of the barge’s funnel, makes the poet think of Avalon and Merlin. Owen is assuming that, just by mentioning these mythic names, his readers will understand the subtext he is referring to – the legends surrounding the heroic British King Arthur. Owen had recently re-read a well-known Victorian poem by Poet Laureate Lord Tennyson, with which he might have been confident his original readers were familiar.

Unlike many of the upbeat legends about Arthur, the mood of Tennyson’s poem is one of grief and loss. It chimes in with the idea that Arthur’s chivalric code ultimately did not withstand human corruptibility. By drawing on this understood subtext Owen is therefore communicating that the valiant glory of battle/the First World War is superseded by the cost of suffering and loss… But if you aren’t familiar with the subtext, you will miss this additional layer of meaning.

The most shared subtext of all

In the Western literary tradition, the most shared subtext of all is the Bible. Every writer from Chaucer onwards has assumed that readers will ‘get it’ when, within their work, they create parallels or counterpoints to famous biblical narratives, that alluding to biblical characters or events will serve as a shorthand to a shared understanding.
  • When in King Lear Edmund cheats his brother out of his father’s affection (Act 1, scene 2; Act 2, scene 1), playing on the infirmities of an ageing parent, Shakespeare would expect his audience to think of another brother who tricked his sibling out of his rightful status - Jacob cheating Esau Genesis 27:1-41.
  • When Dr Frankenstein is aghast at the ugliness of the monster he has created (Frankenstein, vol 1, chapter 4), Mary Shelley expected her readers to see that as a counterpoint to the goodness of God’s creation emphasized by Genesis (Genesis 1:26-31; Genesis 2:2; Genesis 2:7. The contrast of narratives highlighted Shelley’s theme that any such human creation could only come to a bad end.

Light shining in darkness

If you already know this stuff, it’s like having a light to illuminate the texts you are studying. Yet many today do not have the time or brain-space to read the entire sixty-six books of the Bible. However, this week Crossref-it.info is adding to its range of handy paraphrases of famous biblical narratives. For example:
With ninety-six of the most referenced biblical stories on site, http://crossref-it.info/repository/bible-stories can give you the low-down on what most Eng. Lit. authors assume you already know – keeping you a step ahead of your peers. LOL.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A new King Lear text-guide

New worlds of emotional experience

Part of the thrill in studying great literature is that it gives you insight into life and experiences beyond that which you already know.

I have never forgotten my A Level English teacher identifying with the middle aged Cleopatra’s desperation to hold on to her sexual allure. Now I am heading to that age myself, I understand the reality of Cleopatra’s – and Mrs C_’s - hopes and needs.

King Lear opens up worlds of relationship that you may understand (sibling rivalry, anyone?) or may not yet have observed (for example, the intense grief about one’s failing powers and memory). All of this is conveyed through dramatic plotting, full of twists and turns, and couched in memorable poetry. Encountering Shakespeare’s mighty tragedy can be a life changing experience.

Understanding technique

But of course an examiner wants to know not just how you have responded to the text, but why. They want to see your analysis of what is it that Shakespeare has done to create that reaction within you…. It is a relief to know that there is help at hand to give you a thorough understanding of Shakespeare’s technique.

Launched this week, the new Crossref-it text-guide on King Lear will help all students currently in lower or upper Sixth form, who may be studying the play for:
  • A Level English Lit., with OCR and WJEC boards
  • A Level Language and Lit, with AQA
  • Cambridge Pre U exam.
In the new guide you can place Shakespeare within the context of his contemporaries via the Timeline. Accessing Synopses and commentaries gives you speedy reminders of what’s going on or you could explore the Themes of the play. Every tricky concept has a handy pop-up to illuminate the meaning and there is loads of advice about how to write effective essays.

Teaching the text

Meanwhile teachers may have already got an eye out for the texts they will be teaching in the reformed specifications first being delivered from this September. Has your English department opted for:
  • AQA Eng. Eng. Lit. B
  • Edexcel Eng. Lit. 
  • WJEC Eng. Lit. or Lit. & Lang? 
King Lear appears on all these specifications and knowing that there is an accessible but academically rigorous guide to help you teach it successfully might spur you to lay claim to the class set in the stock cupboard!

Probably composed in the same year as the Gunpowder plot, Crossref-it.info Context sections help you see how King Lear reflected topical concerns about the role of the monarch and the insecure social conditions of the time. You can discover how verbal Motifs run through the play and of course can link these to our free searchable text on site. There’s lots more, so why not explore?

The Crossref-it team believe in the power of literature to transform – and take the headache out of preparation. What’s not to like!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

King Lear revealed

For many critics, King Lear is the mightiest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It is a play about age and irresponsibility, about parents and children, about the boundaries between rational and irrational behavior. Many may be studying it for A Level English Lit. with OCR and WJEC boards, or for A Level Language and Lit with AQA, or for their Cambridge Pre U exam.

If you are due to be examined on King Lear this summer, you’ll will be pleased to know that, just in time to help you, a Crossref-it.info text guide is about to be released – watch this space!

Read Lear online

To help you easily flick through the play meanwhile, you can find a searchable online version of the King Lear text. Just when you are struggling to remember in which scene the old King calls his daughters ‘unnatural hags’, Crossref-it.info’s speedy search facility will lead you to Act 2 Scene 4, where you can trace the development of Lear’s distress with his elder offspring.

Examiners keep saying that there is no substitute for knowing the text really well. Using the online version, you can quickly scan through the play a scene at a time to remind yourself of the complex plot and Shakespeare’s vivid imagery.

Catch current and forthcoming productions while you can!

Of course, the true impact of a play is only experienced when you see the relationships within it embodied in a theatre. The good news is that you don’t have to make your way to London to see Lear come to life on stage in 2015.

If you hurry, Guildford Shakespeare Company are performing until 14th February at Holy Trinity Church, Guildford, Surrey. The play’s parent/child inter-relationship will be given an added twist by the pairing of real-life father and daughter, Brian Blessed (King Lear) and Rosalind Blessed (Goneril). (Box office: 01483 304384; or www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk)

With slightly more time to book, it’s worth trying to get to a new touring production. Renowned director Jonathan Miller is currently rehearsing Northern Broadsides Theatre Company in William Shakespeare’s King Lear. The production will tour to:

  • The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax (27 Feb-7 Mar)
  • Hull Truck Theatre (10-14 Mar)
  • Theatre Royal Bath (17-21 Mar)
  • Everyman Theatre Cheltenham (24-28 Mar)
  • West Yorkshire Playhouse (8-18 Apr)
  • Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (21-25 Apr)
  • Liverpool Playhouse (28 Apr-2 May)
  • The Lowry, Salford Quays (5-9 May)
  • York International Shakespeare Festival (12-16 May)
  • Rose Theatre, Kingston (19-23 May)
  • New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme (27 May-13 June).

Meanwhile, watch out for the new text-guide and let us know if you agree that King Lear really is the mightiest of Shakepeare’s tragedies.

Friday, 16 January 2015

New texts for A Level English teaching

What goes around..

If you are an A Level English teacher preparing your resources in order to meet the requirements of the new 2015 specifications, you will notice that some texts feature prominently in the new syllabuses, whilst others, although recently taught, are no longer present. Long-standing teachers will have seen the exam ‘canon’ change a number of times over the years and will wisely archive soon to be obsolete resources for the inevitable future when they will reappear again. What goes around comes around.

However, after the upheaval to the AS and A Level English syllabuses imposed by the government reforms, most of the exam boards are suggesting that there will be few changes to the texts specified for first teaching in 2015, until 2020. The resources you draw on and create will be in use for a long time so it pays to ‘invest wisely’.

Crossref-it.info textguides on 2015 specification set texts

If you will be teaching any of the following A Level Lit. or Lang./Lit syllabuses, look out for the academically rigorous Crossref-it.info guides on the texts they feature:


Cambridge Pre U

Cambridge International




Every good wish with your planning and preparation!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

English teaching looking forwards

A Level English reforms

At last, all the A Level English exam boards have had each of their proposed specifications accredited. This means that, from September 2015 there are a raft of new texts and new themes around which A Level Literature study will be focused.

Yes … more planning!

Unfortunately, the introduction of different texts and the reorganisation of how they will be taught means rather a lot of work for already busy A Level English teachers. Whilst some of the new specifications have been available in their approved form since September 2014, others only came out in December, which means some rather speedy catching up!

But help is at hand

We are really pleased that Crossref-it.info resources already cover many areas suggested within the new syllabuses.

Themes linking texts

  • For those considering the AQA Lit A and Edexcel Lit. exams, which feature an exploration of crime, its detection and punishment, why not have a look at the thematic ‘Only Connect’ approach on Villainy and vengeance?
  • Alternatively, there is helpful ‘Only Connect’ material on Love, lust and marriage if you are considering the Edexcel Lit. & Lang., WJEC Lit. & Lang. or AQA Lit. A syllabus themes on Love, romance and loss
  • ‘Only Connect’ material on Women finding a voice will also be relevant if you are planning to teach Edexcel Lit., AQA Lit A. or OCR Lit. about representations of women within literature and society. You could also explore the material here for some starting points: Women and literature
Crossref-it.info is continuing to develop resources and if you have any ideas for literary themes which you would like to see covered, please get in touch at info@crossref-it.info.

Meanwhile, look out for our next blog about which texts we have guides on to help you and your students to exam success with the new 2015 specifications.

Enjoy the term!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Celebrating Christmas

A place for wonder

One more mad week of term to go, and such a lot to do!
          Assignments to hand in, marking to hand back;
                    reports to be filed, revision to plan;
                              parties to dress up for, decorations to sort out;
                                        presents to think of, meals to anticipate;
                                                  expense to worry about, shops to stampede…

And now … breathe!

Why do we do it? Perhaps because there is an impulse in most of us to celebrate the wonder of giving and generosity, of anticipation and arrival, of light in the darkness; an impulse to recapture the joy we knew as children.

Lost hope

Of course now we know that gifts don’t actually come from a jolly man in red and many of us may be struggling to buy for extended family members in whose homes we’d rather not be over Christmas. We may have become cynical.

The English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy grew up going to church and clearly took on board the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in a stable and the later medieval legends that grew up around it. In The Oxen, he portrays the belief that the animals, in whose stall the newborn was laid, knelt in homage to the Christ-child, recognising that he was the son of God, and continued to commemorate his birth in this way ever afterwards.

But as Hardy grew older he became disillusioned with the practices of organised Christianity and the way in which so many Christians behaved. His later works are gloomy about there being any divine providence at work in the world, regarding such a belief as a ‘fancy’ unsustainable in ‘these years’.


Yet Christmas without hope is an empty celebration, at best merely a guzzle of materialism. Which is why Hardy’s poem still strikes a chord today – because he captures the longing within us all for a better way to live, a gentler, more loving way of relating; hopes which, according to Christians, are made possible by the arrival of that tiny baby in a stable far from home.

Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Merry Christmas everybody!