Tony Harrison and the Language of Authority

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EN4405
Don Paterson
Tony Harrison and the Language of Authority
‘And so it seemed to me then that the greatest gift I could acquire for myself was the gift of articulation, the treasure of eloquence, the power over words, the power of words.’ So wrote Tony Harrison in his essay ‘Facing up to the muses’ in the Bloodaxe Critical Anthology of his work, explaining the origins of his strong belief in the power of language, and particularly poetry. Tony Harrison, though he has written for both television and the theatre, has insisted that he only ever writes poetry and that through this poetry he gives a voice to those who do not have the eloquence to speak for themselves. In this essay I will explain the ways in which Harrison’s poetry gives a cultural authority to the working-class voice. Being a man who was part of both the literary and the working-class worlds, but also alienated from both, particularly by his language, Harrison’s poetry speaks for both sides. Harrison demonstrates his mastery of classical poetry by his use of classical forms and allusions, but subverts these forms for his own purposes, namely, to demonstrate that the working-class voice can have eloquence too. His mastery of both kinds of language demonstrates his authority to speak for both sides. However Harrison also not only challenges authority through his political poetry but also challenges the accepted ‘language of authority’, demanding why it should be confined to ‘Received pronunciation’ and the language of Oxbridge graduates. Harrison’s poetry, however, most strongly reveals his own ‘language of authority’ since it is impossible to ignore. The eloquence, anger, invective and simplicity of his words reveal an authority to speak for those who do not have voice and show to be true his opinion that ‘language could take on anything and everything.’

Harrison’s belief in the power of language stems from his working-class upbringing and Grammar School and university education. Being a ‘scholarship boy’ meant that he went to school with a strong Leeds accent and was derided by his teachers, however his education meant that he was alienated from his uneducated parents and family as he grew older. Harrison discusses his feelings of alienation in his sonnet sequence The School of Eloquence but also seeks to demonstrate how ‘eloquence’ can liberate and a lack of eloquence confine people. In ‘National Trust’ Harrison uses the metaphor of a dumb man tortured by those in authority to remind us of his reasons for writing:

The dumb go down in history and disappear
And not one gentleman ’s been brought to book:
Mes den hep tavas a gollas y dyr
(Cornish) –
‘the tongueless man gets his land took.’ [Line 13-16]

The use of Cornish in this poem shows Harrison’s championing of language that differs from the standard language of authority. Through the use of the dumb man described in the poem Harrison shows that with the dying of the Cornish language the people’s culture has no authority and so is ignored. However Harrison not only uses the language here, but uses it eloquently, and to remind us of a social injustice, thereby giving those with another language back their authority. Having a different language is compared to being ‘tongueless’, something which Harrison is familiar with and which he discusses in other poems in the sequence, including ‘Bookends I and II’. In these sonnets Harrison describes his relationship with his father after the death of his mother and their frustration at not being able to find a message for her headstone. The poem effectively conveys the frustration that not having a command of language can produce; in the poem neither father nor son has the necessary authority over language in their grief to produce a ‘terse’ description of the woman they both loved, and so are reduced to arguing about it. Harrison’s conclusion that his father’s words express his love best reveals the irony of the way in which he has to some extent...
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