Sunday, June 01, 2008

Winehouse and Raleigh

How curious, some of the reactions to the fact that Amy Winehouse lyrics appeared on the prac crit section of this year's Cambridge English Tripos. What a pity that the Cambridge university spokesman fuelled the complaints of The Campaign for Real Education that this was 'dumbing down' by commenting that 'Cambridge dons live in the modern world' (which has been represented by some journalists as meaning that they'll do anything to look up-to-date), instead of sticking to the examiners' excellent justification: 'The idea is to assess students' abilities at dealing with unseen writings from across the field of English literature' - ie, as Mary Beard indicates, to assess their ability to think for themselves (which is the real education, don't you know, all you Campaigner folks!).

As it happens, both Professors John Sutherland and Michael Dobson show that the Winehouse lyrics stand up well to the comparison with Raleigh which the question required:

Look at this stanza and ask yourself: is it from a 15th-century poet, or a 21st-century chanteuse?

Tho' I battled blind,
Love is a fate resigned
Memories mar my mind,
Love is a fate resigned.

In a blindfold test (another favourite prac-crit technique) a lot of readers, I believe, would think it's of Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II vintage. It's Winehouse, of course. Top marks to whoever set the paper. (Sutherland)


Both lyrics, in their different idioms, are in fact highly conventional, and each lapses blurrily at times into the poetical cliches of its own day (Winehouse's phrase 'the final frame' in this context perhaps risks confusing the vocabulary of the pop video with that of snooker); but both are clearly the work of writers with an assured grasp of those conventions, and acutely aware of the needs music imposes on, and finds within, language. (Dobson)

In any case, I'd have thought that the ability to discriminate for themselves between good and bad literature is a skill we would rather like those grads most likely to end up running our publishing houses to have.

Though, considering some of the trends in publishing, and the fact that
A student who sat the paper said: 'It was really bizarre. I sat there looking at the paper in shock. I wouldn't consider a controversial pop singer a literary figure'
you wonder if this exam was a case of shutting the stable door too late.
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