Tony Harrison Harrison, Tony - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tony Harrison 1937-

(Has also written as T. W. Harrison) English poet, translator, dramatist, and librettist.

The following entry provides an overview of Harrison's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 43.

Tony Harrison is considered a master of theatrical poetry and has been credited with keeping verse drama alive in the contemporary theater. He writes traditionally structured poetry in which he combines vernacular with classical language to explore the conflict between his working-class upbringing and his formal education and literary career. A central theme in Harrison's poetry is his alienation from his family, community, and social class, a consequence of his education and his abandonment of the less eloquent language of his ancestors. Yet Harrison is also concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes.

Biographical Information

Harrison was born in Leeds in 1937 to a baker and his wife. He obtained a scholarship for his schooling at the prestigious Leeds Grammar School. Harrison then received a bachelor's degree in classics and a postgraduate degree in linguistics from Leeds University. The tension between his working-class home life and his middle-class education would later become a subject of his poetry. After completing his education, Harrison spent four years teaching in Nigeria and then a year in Prague. He has also spent considerable time in America, and his travel contributed to his focus on linguistics and culture in his poetry.

Major Works

Harrison's collection, The Loiners (1970), uses rhymed verse and includes such diverse topics as his memories of growing up in Leeds and the wedding night of Ferdinand and Isabella. In From “The School of Eloquence” (1978) and Continuous (1981), Harrison employs a 16-line sonnet based on the form developed by George Meredith. Harrison usurps the tools of classical poetry but uses his own dialect, language, and subjects. The themes of these sonnets are human failure and injustice, but on a more specific level, they explore Harrison's personal anger about the suffering of his own family and class. Many of the sonnets deal with the conflict of the upper class trying to obliterate the language of the lower classes. In “Them & (uz)” Harrison recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English. Harrison views himself as the spokesman of the working class and the uneducated. Many of his poems address the conflict inherent in the separation from the very class of people he is trying to represent caused by his education and his use of the medium of poetry. “V.” (1990) is a long poem of rhyming quatrains which is modeled on Thomas Grey's “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” The poem is set during the miners' strike of 1984 and addresses the “versus” present in contemporary English society, including oppositions involving language and class, race and gender, and religion and politics. The Blasphemer's Banquet (1989) is written in support of Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, and is a critical commentary on Muslim bigotry specifically and fundamentalism in general. The poems in Harrison's Permanently Bard (1996) continue with the theme of the use of language in the struggle between the classes. It includes his “Wordlists” which contains a list of languages Harrison learned in school, losing his own language in the process.

Critical Reception

Many reviewers point out Harrison's bleak vision and his anger at the dark side of human nature, including intolerance, duplicity, and cruelty. Most critics praise Harrison as one of the most gifted poets of the theater, but a few have asserted that his dramatic poetry is meant for performance and loses something in publication. Oswyn Murray stated, “Harrison's poetry has always been public poetry, immediately accessible and directed at an audience rather than at the solitary reader. His chief weakness as a poet, that he lacks the ability to speak in a private voice, is in the theatre his greatest strength. …” Many reviewers of Harrison's poetry laud its fusion of traditional forms with a contemporary political thrust. Carol Chillington Rutter summed up Harrison's faithfulness to classical drama, stating, “To keep faith with the theatre of Phrynichos and his heirs, and to make sure that that theatre survives into the next millennium, we must locate an ideological correlative that honours the political spirit of the ancient theatre.” Reviewers also discuss the tension present in Harrison's poetry between his working-class background and his use of classical forms. Bruce Woodcock asserts, “In his poetic invective, it's as if Harrison feels the need to give as good as he gets, to show himself both a proven poet and still one of the lads. It is from this kind of tension that the edge of his work often derives.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Earthworks (poetry) 1964

Aikin Mata [adapter with James Simmons; from Aristophanes' Lysistrata] (drama) 1965

Newcastle Is Peru (poetry) 1969

The Loiners (poetry) 1970

The Misanthrope [translator and adapter; from Moliere's Le Misanthrope] (drama) 1973

Phaedra Britannica [translator and adapter; from Racine's Phedre] (drama) 1975

The Poems of Palladas [translator] (poetry) 1975

Bow Down (drama) 1977

The Passion (drama) 1977

The Bartered Bride [translator; based on the work by Bedrich Smetana] (libretto) 1978

From “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems (poetry) 1978

Continuous: Fifty Sonnets from “The School of Eloquence” (poetry) 1981

A Kumquat for John Keats (poetry) 1981

The Oresteia [translator and adapter; based on the work by Aeschylus] (drama) 1981

U.S. Martial (poetry) 1981

The Mysteries (drama) 1984

Selected Poems (poetry) 1984

The Blasphemers' Banquet [also rendered as The Blasphemer's Banquet ] (television play) 1989

V. and Other Poems (poetry and drama) 1990

A Cold Coming: Gulf War Poems (poetry) 1991

Permanently Bard (poetry) 1996

Alan Young (essay date Spring-Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Weeds and White Roses: The Poetry of Tony Harrison,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 157-63.

[In the following essay, Young asserts Harrison's skill as a poetic dramatist, but notes that, “His now established trade as writer for the theatre—including music-theatre—should not allow us to forget that originally he was, and is still, a poet of unique and disturbing character.”]

In 1929 the publishers J. M. Dent & Sons chose Baker and Miller's 1739 English translation of Molière's plays for their popular Everyman series because ‘it is thought to have more of the spirit of the original than would be found in a more modern version’ (Introduction p. xix). Here is part of a speech from Le Misanthrope in this edition. Alcèste, the man-hater of the title, takes his coquettish mistress Célimène to task about another of her many men friends:

But, however, tell me, madam, by what chance your Clitander has the happiness to please you so much? Upon what fund of merit and sublime virtue do you ground the honour of your esteem? Is it by the long nail he has upon his little finger, that he has gained the great esteem with you, which we see him have? Did you surrender, with all the beau-monde, to the shining merit of his fair periwig? Or are they his large pantaloons, that make you in love with him?

And so on. The sparkle and humanity of Molière's comedy is lost entirely in a galumphing translation which manages to turn the quick and sensitive Alcèste into a boorish eighteenth-century English country squire. Until recently, such indifference to the possibility of providing a text of Molière suitable for the English stage was not so untypical. But is it reasonable to expect any English writer to capture the essentially Gallic panache of Molière's comedies?

The National Theatre's 1973 production of The Misanthrope in Tony Harrison's new version showed that an English audience can enjoy Molière's energy and wit. Harrison's Alcèste is brought to life because the verse is such persuasive artifice:

But what I'd like to know's what freak of luck's
helped to put Clitandre in your good books?
What amazing talents does the ‘thing’ possess,
what sublimity of virtue? Let me guess.
I'm at a loss. Now let me see, I know!
It's his little finger like a croissant, so,
crooked at Angelina's where
he sips his tea
among the titled queens of ‘gay’ Paree!
What makes him captivate the social
Second-skin gauchos in crepe-de-chine?
Those golden blow-wave curls (that aren't his own)?
Flamingo trousers or obsequious tone?
Or is it his giggle and his shrill falsett-
O hoity-toity voice makes him your pet?

As in Molière's French original, Harrison's verse for the character of Alcèste performs a complex dramatic function. It is simultaneously an expressive vehicle for a vulnerable and frustrated sensibility and a method of distancing or critically placing that sensibility. Because of the way he rings all the changes of rhyme Harrison's couplets delight us continually with their conscious artifice. He is skilful too in using the verse simply at times to convey, for instance, the astonishment and anguish of idealism betrayed. Here Alcèste wonders most at his own failure to act in harmony with his knowledge:

Just how degrading can a passion get?
Now watch me grovel. You've seen nothing yet.
There's more to come. Just stay and watch the show.
You'll see my weakness reach an all-time low.
Never call men wise. Look how they behave.
There's no perfection this side of the grave.

Harrison's mastery of the rhyming couplet has earned him much well-deserved critical acclaim in the theatre press. Even Le Monde called his Molière ‘une adaptation brilliante’. This success has encouraged him to take on more work for the National Theatre, including Phaedra Britannica (a version of Racine's Phèdre, again in rhyming couplets), an adaptation of the York Mystery Plays (The Passion), and, most recently and most famously, The Oresteia of Aeschylus. His now established trade as writer for the theatre—including music-theatre—should not allow us to forget that originally he was, and is still, a poet of unique and disturbing character.

Nobody who had read Harrison's first collection—The Loiners (1970)—would have been very surprised by his apparently effortless deployment of dramatic rhymed verse. What was surprising about The Loiners was the almost exclusive use of rhymed forms to convey experiences of raw and often appalling character as well as wild and rollicking ones. It is as if these forms were used by Harrison as non-literary (or even anti-literary) devices, enabling him to avoid ‘literature’ as he created poems of jazz-like spontaneity.

Inevitably there was an unevenness about the poems in The Loiners. Harrison's subject-matter ranged from adolescent memories of his native Leeds (the inhabitants of which city are called ‘Loiners’) to the homosexual exploits of a fifty-year-old professor and poet in Africa; from Isabella and Ferdinand's horrendous wedding-night bonfires of heretics to love-affairs behind the Iron Curtain. The forms vary too, from two-line couplets apparently scribbled on post-cards to long, formal (and rhymed) poems in several sections. The tensions to be perceived in these poems were indicated by the traditional verse which appeared as tag to the book:

There was a young man of Leeds
Who swallowed a packet of seeds.
A pure white rose
Grew out of his nose
And his arse was covered with weeds.

In some of the poems in The Loiners, as in Molière's Alcèste, the ironic surface barely keeps in check a sense of outrage against human intolerance, duplicity, and cruelty. In ‘The nuptial torches’, for instance, Ferdinand's evil sadism absorbs both condemned heretics and his new bride in a single lust:

Young Carlos de Sessa stripped was good
For a girl to look at and he spat like wood
Green from the orchards...

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Oswyn Murray (review date 6 June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry in Public,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4218, June 6, 1986, pp. 615-16.

[In the following review, Murray argues that Harrison's strength is in the public poetry of the theater and therefore better enjoyed in performance than in the solitary act of reading his Dramatic Verse 1973-1985.]

Every generation or so the rebirth of poetic drama is proclaimed; Tony Harrison (like myself) is just old enough to remember the excitement of the last renaissance, associated with the names of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. The plays of that period are not much revived; even in the case of Eliot they remain a minor part of a major poet's work. They...

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Michael Wood (review date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Parnassus, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1988, pp. 324-39.

[In the following excerpt, Wood argues that several contemporary British translations of Greek classics, including Harrison's Oresteia, “are claims, made through language, that Britain has history again, and that its troubles and divisions can be compared to those of other countries and ages.”]

“What's Hecuba to them?” we might ask, thinking of contemporary British poets translating the Greeks; of Irish and Yorkshire idioms attaching themselves to classical names and places. But the question doesn't have to be dismissive or sure of its answer. Tony Harrison's...

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Bruce Woodcock (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Classical Vandalism: Tony Harrison's Invective,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 50-65.

[In the following essay, Woodcock discusses the anger found in Harrison's poetry and asserts that its source is Harrison's “own background … and \his] sense of identity in relation to the marginalisation of working-class experience by dominant middle-class culture.”]

Tony Harrison's poetry grows more extraordinary year by year. His output is increasing dramatically, and he is getting angrier. For a practitioner of classically formal restraint, Harrison is very ready to occupy outspoken extremes of expression and opinion, as his recent...

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Carol Rutter (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Men, Women, and Tony Harrison's Sex-War Oresteia,” in Tony Harrison, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp. 295-302.

[In the following essay, Rutter examines the role of gender in Harrison's Oresteia.]

The Headmistress considered the splendidly wrapped Christmas present from the boy she'd harangued all term. ‘They don't carry grudges,’ she said. ‘Children don't carry grudges.’ Then corrected herself. ‘Boys don't. Girls—They're a bit iffy with grudges.’

I thought of Clytemnestra, stuck in Argos, ten years brooding on that grudge that turned to gall the organ that...

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Peter Symes (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Blasphemy and Death: On Film Making with Tony Harrison,” in Tony Harrison, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp. 384-94.

[Symes is a film editor, director, and producer for the BBC. In the following essay, he discusses working with Tony Harrison on the verse film The Blasphemers' Banquet ]

In 1936, delivering a lecture to the North London Film Society, W. H. Auden concluded that to enable poetry to work with film ‘there was a difficulty finding the right kind of support to enable such experiments to be carried out. It is financial support that is required for these experiments, without restriction on the director's independence of outlook...

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Romana Huk (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Postmodern Classics: The Verse Drama of Tony Harrison,” in British and Irish Drama Since 1960, edited by James Acheson, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 202-26.

[In the following essay, Huk discusses Harrison's adaptations of classical drama and traces how the poet brings a new life and a contemporary edge to the Greek classics.]

To understand this, it becomes necessary to level the artistic structure of the Apollonian culture, as it were, stone by stone, till the foundations on which it rests become visible.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy



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H. G. Widdowson (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Person to Person: Relationships in the Poetry of Tony Harrison,” in Twentieth-Century Poetry: From Text to Context, edited by Peter Verdonk, Routledge, 1993, pp. 21-31.

[In the following essay, Widdowson analyzes how Harrison's use of pronouns in his “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems illustrates his ambivalent relationship to his parents.]


‘You weren't brought up to write such mucky books!’is the final line in italics of Tony Harrison's poem ‘Bringing Up’. It refers to what his mother said when he showed her his first volume The Loiners, and it epitomizes the social...

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Economist (review date 23 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Economist (review date 23 January 1993)

SOURCE: “A Bleeding Poet,” in Economist, Vol. 326, No. 7795, January 23, 1993, p. 83.

[In the following review, the critic praises Harrison as “one of today's most unusual writing talents.”]

For the first time in almost a decade, an English poet stands a good chance of winning the Whitbread prize, the literary award that ranks second only to the Booker in popular esteem in Britain. Unlike the Booker shortlist, which is confined to novelists, the Whitbread shortlist takes in writers of different categories of books—first novel, children's book, biography and so on.


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Daniel Lapenta (review date October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Square Rounds, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, October, 1993, pp. 380-81.

[In the following review, Lapenta criticizes the inflated writing of Harrison's Square Rounds but admires the imaginative staging of the production.]

The dividing line between stimulating political theatre and self-indulgent preaching is a fine one. Poet/director Tony Harrison's new theatre piece Square Rounds totters precariously on this thin border, threatening at any moment to topple into pretentiousness. Driven by a simplistic anti-war theme with a form which sometimes resembles an informative lecture more than a play, Square Rounds is often...

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Helmut Haberkamm (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘These Vs Are All the Versuses of Life’: A Reading of Tony Harrison's Social Elegy V.,” in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, edited by C. C. Barfoot, Rodopi, 1994, pp. 79-94.

[In the following essay, Haberkamm provides an in-depth analysis of Harrison's V. and describes it as “a contemporary elegy, a public poem, which opens up to its social context without dispensing with private grief and ruminations.”]

Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.1

Although he began as a Tyneside poet, publishing his first collection The Loiners,2 as early as...

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Mick Imlah (review date 11 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dead Men's Mouths,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4819, August 11, 1995, p. 18.

[In the following review, Imlah posits that Harrison's take on the horror of Hiroshima is somewhat strained, yet still “casts its dark imprint firmly on the mind.”]

From the vandalized gravestones in Leeds of V. (1986, through the many cemeteries visited in the four-part Loving Memory (1987), with its quatrains modelled on Gray's “Elegy”, to the “Bradford Tomb” in The Blasphemer's Banquet (1989), places of burial and markers of the dead have been at the centre of Tony Harrison's “film/poems” for television. Now Hiroshima offers him its...

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David E. Latané Jr. (review date June-July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Permanently Barred,” in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 5, June-July, 1996, p. 23.

[In the following review, Latanté complains that Harrison's work is not easily found in American bookstores, but that his collections Permanently Bard and The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems “are worth seeking out.”]

Imagine for a moment a country in which a learned poet—past president of the Classics guild, no less—commands an audience for serious verse not only in the print media, in which a vigorously oppositional long poem appears in a major daily during a popular war, but also on TV, where a series of innovative hybrids pioneer a new...

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Martyn Crucefix (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Drunken Porter Does Poetry: Metre and Voice in the Poems of Tony Harrison,” in Tony Harrison: Loiner, edited by Sandie Byrne, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 161-70.

[In the following essay, Crucefix discusses the importance of formal meter and speech to Harrison's poetry.]


Harrison's first full collection, entitled The Loiners after the inhabitants of his native Leeds, was published in 1970 and contained this limerick:

There was a young man of Leeds
Who swallowed a packet of seeds.
A pure white rose grew out of his nose
And his arse was covered in weeds.(1)

Without losing sight of the...

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Peter Forbes (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In the Canon's Mouth: Tony Harrison and Twentieth-Century Poetry,” in Tony Harrison: Loiner, edited by Sandie Byrne, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 189-99.

[In the following essay, Forbes argues that Harrison has more in common with eighteenth-century poetic models than his twentieth-century contemporaries.]

There has been surprisingly little discussion of Tony Harrison's poetics, as opposed to his subject-matter. The crossing of his classical education with his background has mesmerized many into thinking that's all there is to it. Douglas Dunn, a poet with whom Harrison has occasionally been linked to form a notional school (tagged ‘Barbarians’ after...

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Mary Kaiser (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Permanently Bard: Selected Poetry, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 157.

[In the following review, Kaiser asserts that class and language are the predominant themes in the poems of Harrison's Permanently Bard.]

With its detailed introduction and extensive notes, Permanently Bard, a selection of Tony Harrison's poetry designed for Britain's A-level students, provides an accessible overview of Harrison's poetry for any reader unfamiliar with his work. Comprising fourteen volumes of verse, twelve plays and libretti, and three television plays, Harrison's output is prodigious, but his work is much better...

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Carol Chillington Rutter (essay date May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Harrison, Herakles, and Wailing Women: ‘Labourers’ at Delphi,” in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 13, May, 1997, pp. 133-43.

[In the following essay, Rutter analyzes Harrison's The Labourers of Herakles and asserts that “To this female spectator in the audience Harrison's theatrical practice seems progressively at odds with his official profeminism.”]

As well as being a widely published poet, Tony Harrison is well known as a dramatist for his reworkings of classical materials, from ancient Greek to medieval. When he was invited to contribute a play for the eighth International Meeting on Ancient Greek Drama, on the theme of...

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