Authors: Tony Harrison

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet and playwright

Author Works


Earthworks, 1964

The Loiners, 1970

From “The School of Eloquence,” and Other Poems, 1978

Continuous: Fifty Sonnets from “The School of Eloquence,” 1981

Selected Poems, 1984

The Fire Gap: A Poem with Two Tails, 1985

Selected Poems, 1987

V., and Other Poems, 1990

The Gaze of the Gorgon, 1992

Black Daisies for the Bride, 1993

Permanently Bard: Selected Poetry, 1995

The Shadow of Hiroshima, and Other Film/Poems, 1995

Versus Verse: Satirical Rhymes of Three Anti-bodies in Opposition to Practically Everything, 1995 (with Geoffrey B. Riddehough and Geoffrey A. Spencer)

Prometheus, 1998

Laureate’s Block, and Other Occasional Poems, 2000


Aikin Mata, pr. 1965 (with James Simmons; adaptation of Aristophanes’ play Lysistratē)

The Misanthrope, pr. 1973 (adaptation of Molière’s play Le Misanthrope)

Phaedra Britannica, pr. 1975 (adaptation of Jean Racine’s play Phèdre)

Bow Down, pr., pb. 1977 (libretto; music by Harrison Birtwistle)

The Passion, pr., pb. 1977 (adaptation of the York Mystery Plays)

The Bartered Bride, pr., pb. 1978 (libretto; music by Bedřich Smetana; adaptation of Karel Sabrina’s opera)

The Oresteia, pr., pb. 1981 (libretto; music by Birtwistle; adaptation of Aeschylus’s play)

Dramatic Verse, 1973-1985, pb. 1985

Plays, pb. 1985-2002 (4 volumes; volume 1 pb. as The Mysteries)

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, pb. 1990 (based on Sophocles’ play Ichneutae)

Square Rounds, pb. 1992

The Common Chorus: A Version of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” pb. 1992

The Prince’s Play, pr., pb. 1996 (adaptation of Victor Hugo’s play)


The Big H, 1984 (libretto; music by Dominic Muldowney)

The Blasphemers’ Banquet, 1990

Prometheus, 1998


Poems, 1975 (of Palladas of Alexandra)


Tony Harrison was born in the northern English industrial city of Leeds, into a working-class family. His father was a baker, and it was presumed that Harrison would grow up as a member of the British working class. He proved, however, to be an excellent student, and he obtained a scholarship that allowed him to study at Leeds University, where he read the classics. His educational achievements, although a source of pride for his family, were also to cause personal difficulty, since they separated him from his class background, still a very strong element in English society in the twentieth century. This problem of having been, in a sense, educated outside his class, has been a constant theme for him poetically, and he still identifies very strongly with the concerns of the laboring members of modern society, especially in Britain. He has been called the unofficial laureate of lower-class England, championing their blighted, confined plight in modern society, while also feeling free to criticize the vulgarian Yahooism of its worst elements.{$I[AN]9810001859}{$I[A]Harrison, Tony}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Harrison, Tony}{$I[tim]1937;Harrison, Tony}

Tony Harrison

(© Peters, Fraser, and Dunlop)

As a university lecturer, he taught first in Nigeria and then in Czechoslovakia. His literary interests were very wide, and he was deeply interested in languages. He wrote poetry and drama and translated literature from early in his career. He and James Simmons collaborated on a translation of Aristophanes’ Lysistratē (411 b.c.e.) into the pidgin English of one of the Nigerian tribes while he was teaching there. His interest in translation and adaptation of the great literature of the past into modern texts led him into work not only in the theater but also in opera, where he developed a reputation both as a translator and as a librettist of original texts. He has, as a result, developed his skills as a poet in ways that have made it possible for him to make a good living as an artist, a somewhat unusual situation for a poet, who usually has to depend on teaching or subsidies of some kind to survive.

What began, then, as a seemingly interesting, if modest gift as a poet of working-class themes, has led to a life of considerable sophistication, since he works with the Covent Garden Opera in London and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This work led to his marriage to Teresa Stratas, one of the great sopranos of the last half of the twentieth century. He has also gone beyond simple translation to develop dramas, sometimes based on classical fragments. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, which was successfully produced by London’s National Theatre, is an example of his skill in retrieving snatches of classical material and turning them into actable works of art. This Sophocles satyr play had been so badly preserved that it was simply not playable prior to Harrison’s intrusion.

It might seem that such work, at the center of the artistic worlds of London and New York, would lead inevitably away from the more mundane themes of his northern English beginnings, but Harrison keeps a home in Newcastle and continues to write poetry about the struggles of working-class English life. In the mid-1980’s, he created a public sensation with a poem about the mindless vandalism of working-class youths, after discovering that his parents’ graves had been defaced by football (soccer) hooligans. The long poem, V., was broadcast on British television. Its frankness in dealing with the problem and its unabashed use of the vulgar language of the street caused a public scandal and gave the poem a general scrutiny and public exposure unusual in a time when poetry has little hold upon the common reader, let alone the television viewer. It showed Harrison’s determination to make his poetry a part of the public domain, and it revealed his continued determination to make poetry from the problems of his (in a sense) tribal origin, which he knows have not become any easier for the millions of people caught at the bottom of contemporary urban society.

Harrison’s unusual range of artistic expression and theme allows for the use of considerable scholastic skills, as evidenced in his translations and adaptations, and for a wide range of poetic styles. Harrison is capable of enormous sophistication and of a rather odd manipulation of witty, metaphysical metaphor that is sometimes reminiscent of the cleverness of John Donne. But he is also a poet who can write with great simplicity and deep feeling, particularly in his poems of working-class angst and unhappiness. He is not easily defined, and for all his urban concerns, either at the highest level of social accomplishment or the lowest level of urban squalor, he can once in a while produce poems such as “Cypress and Cedar” that reveal a gift for nature poetry.

BibliographyAstley, Neil, ed. Tony Harrison. London: Bloodaxe Books, 1989. Astley has done a great service in bringing together the best academic journal articles written about Harrison, who has emerged as a major subject for scholars and poetry critics.Byrne, Sandie, ed. H, V., & O: The Poetry of Tony Harrison. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Critical interpretation of Harrison’s poetry focusing on the three poems of the title. Includes bibliographic references and an index.Byrne, Sandie, ed. Tony Harrison: Loiner. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Commemorates the sixtieth birthday of Harrison through an exploration of his work, including that of his best-known poem, “The Loiners.” Includes personal recollections of working with Harrison and critical analyses of his techniques and themes.Cunningham, Valentine. British Writers of the Thirties. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989. This book deals with a literary period before Harrison’s time, but it has an excellent section on the problem of “class” in English literature, as well as a close investigation of the way in which the laboring class in England has been represented in poetry and the novel. The tendency for most English writers has been to steer cautiously through working-class themes, since most of these writers have middle-class backgrounds. The limitations this places upon them are carefully discussed. Harrison, originally working-class, educated himself into the middle class but continues to use his early background as a theme in his poetry.Donoghue, Denis. “Venisti Tandem.” The London Review of Books 7 (February 7, 1985): 18-19. The distinguished literary critic and university professor has a direct and uncomplicated style that can be understood without any particular training. In this article, he discusses Selected Poems with patient and fastidious attention to Harrison’s themes, his use of tone, and those two rather opposing elements in Harrison’s work: his occasional vulgarity and his use of his classical learning.Kelleher, Joe. Tony Harrison. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1996. A brief critical introduction to Harrison’s work.Rowland, Anthony J. Tony Harrison and the Holocaust. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2001. Argues that while some of Harrison’s poems are barbaric, they can be evaluated as committed responses to the worst horrors of twentieth century history.Thwaite, Anthony. Poetry Today: A Critical Guide to British Poetry, 1960-1984. London: Longman, 1985. Thwaite sees the resemblance between Harrison and Douglas Dunn–both working-class poets, one from Yorkshire, one from Scotland–and he discusses the way in which their determination to keep their connections with working-class areas of Britain continues to affect their poetry.
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