Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Misreading England: Poetry and Nationhood since the Second World War
Raphaël Ingelbien
Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2002.
$60.00, 50.00€, £32.45, 252 pages, ISBN 90-420-1123-8.

Jo Gill
University of Exeter

Raphaël Ingelbien’s Misreading England: Poetry and Nationhood Since the Second World War aims, in the words of the cover blurb, to examine the ways in which “issues of nationhood have affected the works and the reception of several English and Irish poets.” Moreover, the study “explores the interactions between post-war English poets” (principally Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney) and the extent to which “they have transformed or misread earlier poetic visions of England.” In passing, Ingelbien attempts to reassert the importance of historical and cultural contexts (although these are not, contrary to the claims of the blurb, entirely missing from existing scholarship in the field) and to “take [. . .] issue” with postcolonial readings of contemporary poetry, challenging a critical practice which he—rather inelegantly—terms “identity thinking” (195).

Ingelbien’s aims then are many and various—perhaps too many and too various. The study brings a number of important and potentially intriguing issues into productive proximity. However, to do justice to the relationships which he identifies (for example, between nation and history), Ingelbien needs to spend rather more time defining his terms. What precisely does he mean by “nationhood” or by “history?” Do the meanings of these words change over time and in different contexts? Most importantly, do these words mean distinct things to the different poets under discussion? Startling statements such as “Larkin rarely wrote about history” (50) raise more questions about Ingelbien’s definition of the term “history” than they answer about Larkin’s poetics.

In attempting to cover such a range of issues and this wealth of poetry, there is some loss of focus. The effect on the reader, finally, is of a rather relentless complaint—principally about failures of interpretation on the part of previous readers and critics.

And this, in spite of the bolder and more abstract claims of Ingelbien’s argument, is his fundamental bugbear. As the title of his book suggests, Ingelbien is preoccupied with the idea that somebody (everybody) has misread somebody (everybody) else and that this has perverted the natural course of post-War poetry and its reception. Heaney, in particular, stands accused of this. Again and again Ingelbien complains about his “misreading” of other poets. Heaney, we are told, “seriously distorts” and “characteristically misinterprets” Larkin (192-193). Heaney, finally “is wrong” in his judgements (217). The critic Robert Crawford, amongst others, meets a similar fate (208) and, according to Ingelbien, “entirely misses” the complexity of Larkin’s poetry (203). Such forceful and repeated accusations are both paradoxical (there is a certain irony in Ingelbien complaining about Heaney’s “blindness to the more ironic and unstable aspects of Hughes” [149]) and symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in the book’s theoretical stance.

Clearly, the author is an astute reader of poetry (he was Larkin Memorial Scholar at the University of Hull and now lectures at UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium). At his best, for example in Chapter Four “Ted Hughes’s English Mythologies,” he combines a careful and sensitive close reading of the images, syntax, metre and rhyme of the poetry with an understanding of its personal and cultural contexts (see his reading of Hughes’s “Witches” [118]). He seems alert to the ambivalence, and contradictions and indeterminacy of poetic language—alert, presumably, to the possibility that therein lies the particular quality of poetry. However, this understanding seems to be countermanded by the persistent assertion, the backbone of his argument, that there can be such a thing as a “misreading” of poetry. This assertion implies, problematically I think, that there is a correct or right or perfect “reading” to which although all must aspire, few will attain. How are we to define a “misreading?” Who has the authority to impose such a judgement? Is a “misreading” in this context any more than a reading with which the author does not concur?

There are grounds for suggesting that Heaney has conjured from his reading of Hughes, say, a particular version of Englishness and of Irishness, and that these impressions of national identity have been further dispersed among subsequent readers of both poets (and absorbed, assimilated, modified, contested, rejected, and so on, in myriad and endless ways). Such is the nature of reading—not evidence of culpable “misreading.” Ingelbien comes close to conceding this on two occasions. At the heart of the book (Chapter Five, “Seamus Heaney and England: A Map of Misreadings”), he asserts that Heaney’s is a “powerful misreading,” thus inadvertently acknowledging the contradiction in his own argument. For if Heaney’s [mis]reading is “powerful” (suggestive, persuasive, stimulating, provocative) then this, surely, is evidence of its validity and is to be celebrated rather than regretted? More explicitly, in his conclusion the author belatedly recognises—and indeed powerfully asserts—the fertility of intertextual relationships, of the kinds of [mis]readings which have been his target throughout.

This having been said, Ingelbien works hard to delve beneath the surface associations of his four chosen poets and says much which is of interest about each poet’s relationship with his historical context. Geoffrey Hill’s yoking of contemporary and ancient British history is particularly well served. So, too, Ingelbien sensitively locates the poetry of Hill and Hughes in both poets’ childhood experience of war and in a resurgent sense of solidarity, community and nationhood in that period.

On the whole, though, his reading of what distinguishes each poet’s work is more persuasive than his attempt to find congruence, borrowings, erroneous “misreadings” (on page 184, he revealingly uses “debt” and “misreading” as synonyms). Although many of the comparisons are valuable—particularly when Ingelbien looks beyond his chosen poets and identifies ways in which Hughes and Hill, say, have drawn on the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins—others seem forced. A note on page 162, for example, ventures that “Some metaphors in Heaney’s “First Calf” are still rather Hughesian, and seem to prefigure Hughes’s Moortown Diary” [my emphasis]. On occasion, it is not clear what is to be gained by identifying such similarities. If, for example, Hughes’s “The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar” may “easily be compared with [Hill’s] Funeral Music” (78) this might simply be a consequence of what Hughes elsewhere describes as “the enigma of spontaneous archetypes” (Winter Pollen 75). Such a critical practice makes the work of Ingelbien’s chosen poets seem, ultimately, to be rather limited. It is as though all four are circling, relentlessly, around the same prey—and I do not think that their writing is as homogenous or as circumscribed as this implies.

There is much which is of interest in this book. A close reading of the writing of these distinct poets, one which attends to its ideological contexts, is always to be applauded. The uncertainty in the use of contestable terms (“Englishness”, “history”) and the preoccupation with rooting out “misreadings” rather obscure the larger points which Ingelbien is making. Nevertheless, evident here is a thorough and attentive reading of important texts and issues.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.