Constructing Identity

Continuity, Otherness and Revolt in the Poetry of Tony Harrison

by Agata Handley (Author)
©2016 Monographs 212 Pages


The author analyzes the multi-layered and multidimensional theme of identity construction recurring in Tony Harrison’s work from the seventies onwards looking at the way it evolved throughout the years. The book examines identity in the frame of the sociological and philosophical thoughts of such thinkers as Emmanuel Levinas and Zygmunt Bauman and in reference to the systematization proposed by Zbigniew Bokszański: identity as a state or process, identity as a continuity or change, and identity as a consequence of conformity or revolt.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction “The whole view North”
  • Chapter One “Correct your maps: Newcastle is Peru!” Continuity of Exploration and Exploitation in The Loiners
  • Chapter Two “Wherever did you get your talent from?” Continuity of Poetic Heritage in The School of Eloquence
  • Chapter Three “The still too living dead.” Continuity of Mourning in the Selected Elegies from The School of Eloquence
  • Chapter Four “Half versus half, the enemies within.” Changing Patterns of Revolt in v.
  • Chapter Five “This frightening mask.” Continuity of Poetic Gaze in Selected War Poems
  • Conclusion “How have you been useful for the polis?”
  • Bibliography

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“The whole view North”

Born in 1937, Tony Harrison is a poet who crossed the boundary dividing the English working and middle classes. He was one of those children who, due to educational reform,1 received state scholarships and went to grammar schools, and as a result, had the opportunity to become the students representing the first generation of the working class of the North at university level. Reading Harrison’s poetry, it seems justifiable to say that his poetic path started not when he published his first poem but much earlier, in 1948, when, as a “scholarship boy,” he crossed the threshold of Leeds Grammar School, finding himself from that moment onwards “at the friction point of two cultures,”2 as Richard Hoggart put it (2005: 239). This was a crucial moment, a triggering point that changed the trajectory of Harrison’s ← 11 | 12 → life, opening doors to the world of eloquence and simultaneously depriving him of a clear identification with the place he grew out of, and one to which he will be returning again and again in his verse, continually “Facing North,” as one of his titles asserts. In this poem, Harrison describes “the act of poetic composition” as “luminous O of … light, itself illuminating” (Byrne 1998: 177) darkness.

Harrison’s description of the act of creation can be explained in relation to the words of Barbara Skarga, who in her book Tożsamość i Różnica, comments on Emmanule Levinas’ thought:

In the poem, light actually illuminates lines of text—something familiar as it quite literally comes from the speaker but also from something other than the Self, something that must be encountered and confronted by the one who wants to read it. “The act of poetic composition,” (Byrne 1998: 177) whose metaphorical rendering in the poem is based on the opposition between light and darkness, is, first of all, the act of seeing. The idea refers to the broader concept which recurs in Harrison’s work, namely that the poet’s unflinching gaze, maintained even in the face of the atrocities of history, and a continuous observation of reality are necessary elements of literary craft. Other necessary elements are mastering eloquence and exerting control over a language which quite literally, Harrison says, serves as a tool of power, since a “tongueless man gets his land took” (Harrison National Trust 17) and loses influence over his own fate.

In the third stanza of the poem, the northern wind swings the lamp, the circle of light loses its shape, chaos replaces cosmos, and suddenly, in a fashion that brings to mind the metaphysical imagery of John Donne and Andrew Marvell, the room grows into a universe with “planets hurled/… off their courses” where “there is no gravity to hold the world” (Facing North 26–28). Luke Spencer comments on this sudden change of perspective, suggesting that in the poem, the North gains a broader, more universal meaning:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien. 2016. 212 pp.

Biographical notes

Agata Handley (Author)

Agata Handley works as a lecturer and a researcher at the University of Łódź, Poland. The main areas of her academic interest are literature translation, British culture, and contemporary British poetry.


Title: Constructing Identity