Photo: London Bridge by Robert Dimov
Mrs Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She was wrong and one of the reasons she was wrong was literature. Much of literature, like religion, tells us how to behave, especially in extreme circumstances. Works like Beowulf and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are essentially conduct books. In this sense literature is propaganda from the past for the future. However, unlike religion, literature is flexible and naturally inclusive.
In his Nobel acceptance speech this week Bob Dylan mused, “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally.”
A similar process occurred when the band Oasis took the name of the greatest British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and transformed it in the title and refrain for their song Don’t Look Back in Anger (1995). Over the last fortnight that refrain has been used by Mancunians both to console and to define their reaction of “love conquers hate” in the wake of the terrorist attack in Manchester.
Many would baulk against the idea that a mere pop song could be considered literature. More would be affronted by the idea that literature – let alone pop lyrics7 – could compete with religion. But the greatest British poet of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, described literature as “Fragments… shored against my ruins”. In other words bits of legends, stories, plays and poems are what we use to console ourselves in times of need – be they Cervantes, Charles Dickens or John Osborne.
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina
Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored18 against my ruins.
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih Shanith Shantih.
London Bridge is not falling down22, thanks to the robust mix of multicultural voices and the literature we have shored18 against our ruins.
 to shore up – reinforce, fortify, strengthen
 to behave – act, conduct oneself
 conduct book – guide to social norms
 unlike – in contrast to
 to muse – (in this case) write thoughtfully
 grammar school – (US English) elementary school
 to measure things by – to evaluate experience
 lyrics – the words to a song
 worked their way into – be inserted in a subtle way
 knowingly – intentionally
 fortnight – two weeks
 refrain – line that is frequently repeated in a song
 Mancunian – sb. from Manchester
 in the wake of – following, after
 to baulk against – resist, not accept
 to affront – offend, insult
 let alone – much less
 shored – accumulated, a. up to support a building, b. (of a catch of fish) brought ashore
 cento – literary text created from lines/fragments by other authors
 thunder – loud noise generated by a storm (= tempest)
 shall I set my lands in order – will I reorganize my kingdom appropriately?
 to fall down (fall-fell-fallen) – collapse
 a line from a famous nursery rhyme (= traditional children’s song) that probably has its origin in the ritual of human sacrifice in blessing new buildings
 “(remember later on my pain). He hid himself in the fire which refines them” from Dante’s Inferno
 from The Virgil of Venus (anonymous) “When shall I be like the swallow?” (i.e. able to sing and fly away/escape). The refrain of the poem promises love to all.
 swallow – (Hirundinidae) very fast migratory insectivorous songbird
 “O swallow swallow” comes either from The Princess by Tennyson or Itylus (= Philomel) by Swinburne
 “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” from The Disinherited (El Desdichado) (1865) by Gérard de Nerval (1808-55)
 Why then Ile (= I’ll) fit you – I’ll give you exactly that. The line is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: Hieronymo’s Mad Againe (c.1589). Hieronymo is asked to produce a court play. Superficially, he says he will do it, but he is really saying that he will use theatre to trap the murderers of his son.
 Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata – give, show compassion, and control yourself; from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) text
 Shantih – (the Sanskrit conclusion to an Upanishad) peace, amen, shalom, As-Salaam-Alaikum