Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The writing’s on the wall

By now many people will have seen the new Bond film, Spectre, and heard its haunting theme tune, The writing’s on the wall, sung by Sam Smith.
Many of Smith’s classic tracks (and the videos promoting them) focus on love, loss and death. Here he skillfully weaves the Bond iconography into that mix, with references to running, shooting, broken glass and facing the storm.

His lyrics also touch on the interior life that has emerged in recent Bond films – that of the hero’s essential loneliness. Faced with repeated loss and betrayal, Craig’s Bond has barricaded his emotions behind cold coping mechanisms. Yet Smith’s lyrics point to the plot development that casts doubt on Bond’s ability – or desire -  to keep functioning as he previously has (see the film if you want to know more!):

I want to feel love, run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
Cause the writing's on the wall.

The last line of the chorus is highlighted in the promo vid when, in a clip from the film, Bond sees his name scrawled on a deserted building. But take away that immediate context (as anyone listening to an audio recording would experience) and what does this well-known phrase actually mean?

A prophecy of judgement

The saying is popularly used to allude to any dire warning of the end of something. Smith’s Catholic background means that he would probably be familiar with the origins of the phrase:
  • In the Old Testament book of Daniel, arrogant Persian king Belshazzar gives a feast where he drinks from sacred Jewish vessels. Then he sees a mysterious finger writing on the wall what amounts to a judgement on the king. He is frightened, and with good reason, for later that night he dies.
  • Check out the original story at Daniel 5:3-6; Daniel 5:25-30
No wonder the audience shares Bond’s trepidation when we see his name in dripping red figures above an arrow to follow – given the context of the film’s story, the song lyric and its biblical origins, we fear that this is an invitation for Bond to meet his doom.

Check out the video below and enjoy:

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Cover versions

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Why do recording artists do cover versions? It’s not like they are going to get lots of money from copyright fees – in fact they will usually have to pay the original authors, or their publishers, substantial amounts!

What they gain however is the pleasure of familiarity with the material, as well as being able to showcase their talents by putting a distinctive twist on their interpretation of the lyrics and mood. We listen to a cover version because we already like that type of song, but then appreciate the way the artist has enhanced the original.

Poets are the same. They often take well-known poetic styles and show how versatile they can be within that genre:

  • Shakespeare wrote 150 versions of a sonnet
  • More recently, Michael Symmons Roberts played around with the constraints of 15 line poems, creating 150 new verses in Drysalter.

Alternatively, poets can lead us from familiarity into new styles, just like someone wanting to listen to The House of the Rising Sun can end up encountering a folk, blues, rock, punk, dance or dubstep version of the classic folk ballad.

Keats’ experiments

John Keats (1795-1821) did not have a wealthy background or fine education, but immersed himself in books wherever he could lay his hands on them. As he developed into one of the most significant of the Romantic poets (before his premature death aged 24) he experimented with the different genres of poetry he came across. If we are to appreciate the talent he applied to each form, we need to get familiar with his starting materials.


In La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Keats takes the traditional quatrain verse form of a ballad (see last month’s blog) and plays against our expectations of a neatly tied up unit of sense by leaving the story sparse and unresolved. Check out here the familiar version of the quatrain.

Spenserian stanza

Just as today we are still influenced by poetry which, like Keats’, was written 200 years earlier, so Keats had a huge admiration for Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, published 200 years before he was born. Keats used Spenser’s verse form (the Spenserian stanza) as a way of paying homage in his own narrative poem, The Eve of St Agnes.

Ottava rima

In another long, dramatic poem, Isabella: or The Pot of Basil, Keats works within the Italian verse form known as ottava rima, which was brought to England in the Renaissance. His contemporary Romantic, Lord Byron, used the tight format to highlight his satiric tone (see Ottava rima, whereas in Keats’ work we almost forget the restraints of rhyme etc. as the story sweeps us along.

La Belle Dame, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes – they are all, in one sense, cover versions of an existing format. It is how Keats – or any other poet - adapts them that demonstrates real talent.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Recognising poetry

Earlier this month, the UK celebrated National Poetry Day. Across the media there was a feast of readings and a special focus in many schools.

Verse that lives on

Poetry is an enduring medium. Since the earliest days of our oral culture, handing down dramatic narratives in verse form helped make them more memorable for both the teller and the audience. Gathering together to listen to these verse stories was the equivalent of watching the telly together today, drawn in by a dramatic tale.

An exam expectation

Poetry is a key component of all A Level English Literature syllabuses today and, apart from studying the output of well-known poets, examiners also like to put candidates on the spot by asking for an analysis of a previously unseen poem. Students are expected to recognise what style of text they are looking at, so that they can see how the author has played with – or against – the expectations of that particular genre. But how are you meant to know?

At crossref-it.info you’ll find an entire section under ‘Aspects of poetry’ dealing with Recognising poetic form. Each brief article explains what is meant by a particular genre, the era in which it was most prevalent and the stylistic aspects by which it can be recognised. And this week three new articles have been added to the section.

What is alliterative poetry?

One of the earliest types of poetry in the English language was what we now call alliterative poetry:

  • Rather than grouping thoughts together by a connecting rhyme-scheme (e.g. rhyming couplets) Old and Middle English alliterative poetry contained stressed words which alliterated, giving energy and narrative flow to the verse
  • A very early example is Beowulf, an epic poem probably composed in the sixth century CE
  • The alliterative genre endured until about 1500 and another well-known example is Piers Plowman, written by a contemporary of Chaucer’s, William Langland. 

To find an example of how the verse works, visit here.


Another more enduring style of poem is the ballad. Originally associated with song, these simple rhyming folk narratives captured dramatic situations in an easily repeatable form and often served as commentaries on the events of the day. Later the genre was also employed by learned writers who wanted to capture the genre’s expectations of simple and direct communication. Find out more here.


Both ballads and alliterative poems are fairly easy to recognise, with regular rhymes or rhythms or familiar subject matter. But what if what you are looking at doesn’t seem to obey any of the ‘rules’ you expect of poetry, with no consistent metre, stanza form or rhyme-scheme for example?

Free verse

You may find you are analysing what is known as free verse. This twentieth century development echoed the modernist desire to forge new literary forms which were not tied to the constraints of tradition. Have a look here and see what you think.

Then watch out for more helpful definitions of poetic styles in November!

Monday, 5 October 2015

This week’s National Poetry Day celebrates LIGHT!

National Poetry Day on Thursday 8th October celebrates how poets have reflected on the theme of light.

What do you associate with it? If you are dragging yourself out of bed to get ready for school/college because a new day has dawned, you might empathise with John Donne. Having spent a seductive night with his beloved, facing up to the sunlight is the last thing he wants to do. This is turned into a witty complaint in The Sunne Rising, where he castigates the sun as a ‘Busy old fool,’ and ‘Saucy pedantic wretch’ for disturbing him.

The hopefulness of light

Yet literature through the ages reflects humanity’s primeval desire for light, whether it is the natural light of the sun, or lamp/firelight to counteract encroaching darkness. Given that darkness is so frequently associated with fear, light naturally comes to be associated with hope.

Certainly that is what the speaker of Wilfred Owen’s war poem Futility is relying on. Finding a colleague in the dawn after a bitter night, Owen personifies the sun as a nurturing, creative being whom he trusts will know how to rouse the inert soldier, just as it manages to bring forth life from seeds.

In a relatively short poem, there are seven references to the act of waking / getting up (l.2,4,6,8,9,11,14) and Owen may have been thinking of a well-known New Testament verse: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (Ephesians 5:14).

But the sun cannot do what Owen desires, cannot bring the dead to life. As the poem’s speaker realises that his comrade is beyond the sun’s help, he decries its ‘fatuous sunbeams’ l.13. It is as if the sun isn’t trying hard enough, is unfeeling and careless. Instead of symbolising life, it comes to represent the meaninglessness of life.

False light, false hope

Reflecting the desolation of warfare, another of Owen’s poems undercuts the association of light and hope. In The Sentry, the ‘whizz bangs ... snuffling the candles’ l.11 throw the confined dug-out into darkness and its sentry into blindness. The dramatic irony of the poem relies on the light which, for the sentry, symbolises sight. He cannot see the candle flame when it is held close to his blinded eyes, yet when all the lights have gone out he shouts that they are visible.

Symbolically, the extinction of the lights in the dug-out represents the loss of hope in Owen and those like him. Whether the sentry is able to see or not, what is there worth noting in the nightmarish hell that humanity has created through warfare? The man’s blindness represents his self-deception about hope for the future.

Eternal constancy

Certainly man-made light is easily snuffed out and can thus be associated with fragility and inconstancy. Which is why Keats chooses a star as his symbol of enduring love. His Bright Star is ‘steadfast’ and ‘unchangeable’, seemingly eternal, just as Keats wishes his moment of rest in the bosom of his beloved to be.

But what about your associations with light? Why not get creative today and send in your own poem which reflects on this theme to info@crossref-it.info?

Monday, 28 September 2015

Ensuring you’re not left behind in A Level English

Filling in the gaps

There are five Assessment Objectives on which you will be examined for AS and A level English Literature (see blog of 9.9.15). You need to be up to speed on every one of them.

Most of you will be taught courses by teachers who have done English degrees. They will be well able to help you understand a variety of critical approaches (AO5), show you how linguistic patterns shape your responses to texts (AO2) and help you become familiar with – and confident of using -  accurate terminology to express your views (AO1).

All of that equates to 62.5% of all the marks you might score in your exam.

But there are a couple of areas that even well-educated teachers may be unaware of, which together add up to over a third (37.5%) of marks awarded –

  • They may have gaps in their knowledge about the culture which produced texts and for which they were originally created (AO3 – worth a quarter of all your marks)
  •  They may not recognise how frequently literary texts reference other texts (AO4 – worth 12.5% in the exam)

Topical example

In an editorial of a UK paper recently, the columnist commented on the understanding that people have of the migrant crisis and how it has been shaped by one picture:
‘Did we not know, had we not read, that migrant children drowned? What happened to the written word?’
How many of your teachers would know that the journalist was echoing another literary text which commented on people’s faulty understanding (AO4):
‘Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?’
If you – or your teacher – can tell us what the columnist was alluding to (without googling the answer!), email us at info@crossref-it.info and praise will be heaped upon you in the next blog.

If you - or those educating you - are stumped, it looks like you might need the help that www.crossref-it.info can offer!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Welcome to A Level English exam success!

We are here to help

From this September, students studying English Literature at AS and A Level are working through new syllabuses which are targeting success according to a variety of different assessment objectives.

Instead of four assessment goals there are now five, each of which www.crossref-it.info aims to help you with:

  • AO1 - Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression
    • How we help - crossref-it.info utilises - and explains - the kind of terminology and concepts expected at A Level
  • AO2 - Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts
    • How we help - crossref-it.info writers help you understand how aspects like form, narrative and language are used to shape meaning
  • AO3 - Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts were written and received
    • How we help - crossref-it.info is designed to help students understand the significance and influence of cultural and historical contexts: the way the beliefs and worldview of the author informed everything they wrote
  • AO4 - Explore connections across literary texts
    • How we help - crossref-it.info covers a range of literary texts and explains the connections and comparisons. 
  • AO5 - Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations
    • How we help - Commentary covers a range of different ways to interpret each text.

Crossref-it.info makes all this easy and accessible and is FREE!

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Twentieth Century attitudes

The –isms that shaped a century

Fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini
Contextual awareness of what people thought and felt really helps us make sense of what people wrote in any given era. It is an intangible world of ideas which, when we understand it can help us succeed if we are studying A Level English Literature.

Often, authors don’t directly refer to widely held attitudes – they just assume that everyone is coming from a particular cultural viewpoint – even if their job is then to challenge it.

The twentieth century saw the questioning of many longstanding cultural norms, which were replaced by newly developed beliefs. For example:

  • In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Enlightenment rationalism was superseded by Modernism
  • This was itself discarded in the last quarter of the century, as being an inadequate perception of how life held together, in favour of Post-modernism.

But what do all these –isms mean?

www.crossref-it.info has just provided some handy explanations in its ‘Making sense of the intangible world of the twentieth century’ section. Launched this week are easy to understand pages where you can find out about the following:

Communism & Fascism – two ideologies which shaped nationhood and conflict across the world for much of the century

Feminism – the shift of authority from patriarchy to the recognition of female values and power

Modernism – the scientific, industrial ‘solution’ to human progress

Post-modernism & individualism – the loss of faith in over-arching truths

Religious attitudes – changes in religious observance and cultural certainties

Multiculturalism – a challenge to the British, white, Protestant ascendancy

Simply by living within a culture that held these attitudes at varying times, British poets, novelists and playwrights reflected them and refracted them.

As the summer holidays roll on for most, why not take some time out to explore this rich background, and therefore get the most out of the English literature of the twentieth century?