Sandie Byrne looks at the career and the impact of Tony Harrison.

Ad Familiares, as a platform of Classics for All, is clearly an appropriate place for an article on the work of Tony Harrison. If the name didn’t make that clear, then the ‘What we do’ section of the website ( would: ‘[e]ven a brief encounter with the ancient world fires the imagination […] and sheds a dazzling light on why we in the West are as we are, with all our massive strengths and disastrous failings’. Harrison celebrates the massive strengths of classical literature, but does not shy away from the darker aspects of classical cultures.  

Tony Harrison

Harrison’s is a poetry of oppositions and divisions. His aptly-named v. (1985) catalogues the many Xs versus Ys and ‘A/Not A’s in British culture. In his Presidential address to the Classical Society, later reprinted as ‘Facing up to the Muses’, he asserted that awareness of the ‘dreadful schism in the British nation,’ which he was required to translate from Burke’s English into Ciceronian Latin, ‘helped to make me the kind of poet I am and the kind of translator I have become when I approach the Classics’. Harrison’s writing acknowledges that his classical education gave him his vocation and living and shaped and stocked his imagination, but also acknowledges that he can’t fix the division that education introduced between him, the scholarship boy, and his once close-knit family. The poet-narrator sympathises with the skinhead in v. who sees no prospects ahead and takes it out on the gravestones of the once-employed, but for all the past aggro the narrator recalls, he knows that he has become [s] to the skin's [uz].(That phonetic representation of Leeds pronunciation demarcates the RP-speaking ‘us’ [s] from [uz] in the two linked sonnets ‘Them & [uz] I and II’) Harrison’s adaptations may have popularised Classical drama, but they are performed in English; his audience is largely middle-class.

Having won a scholarship to the posh Leeds Grammar School, Harrison found that Latin was not to be translated into the English that he spoke: ‘nothing demotic or too up-to-date’.  But then, neither was a Leeds accent deemed fit for canonical English literature. The message that RP and Standard English were superior to other accents and dialects, and the proper language for high art, was drummed home in an early English lesson and when in school plays Harrison was cast as the drunken flesh-eating Cyclops and, in Macbeth, as the drunken porter. The poems that record that lesson, ‘Them & [uz] I and II’, also record a vow that he would write in his own voice, but that voice is heteroglossic. ‘The tensions in that schism made me into the kind of poet who uses an immensely formal classical prosody against colloquial diction and against the working-class speech of Leeds’ as he says in Facing up to the Muses. So ‘Them & [uz]’, a Meredithian sonnet, is dedicated to two professors, one, Richard Hoggart, the author of The Uses of Literacy, and one, Leon Cortez, famous for his comic Cockney Shakespeare monologues, and juxtaposes Greek and the traditional entrance of a music-hall comic.

αιαι, ay, ay! …stutterer Demosthenes

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas


At Leeds University, Harrison began a thesis on translations of the Aeneid but dropped it after publishing two articles. If we regard γεωργικά [geōrgika] not just as agricultural things but as work with, of, earth, however, the influence of Latin poetry is evident in the title of his first pamphlet collection, Earthworks, published in 1964. Though most critical attention has been paid to his adaptations from Greek, Harrison has also produced translations from other Roman authors. The cynical, worldly, epigrammatic style of Palladas: Poems (1975) and US Martial (1981) echoed that of some poems in his first full-length collection with a commercial publisher, The Loiners (1970).

Harrison is a poet of the stage and screen as well as the page, and has written and directed both original plays and adaptations from Latin and Greek. An early collaboration with James Simmons, Aikin Mata (1966) adapted the sexual politics of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to those of 1960s Nigeria. In Phaedra Britannia (1975), Seneca’s Phaedra via Racine’s Phèdre is transposed to the India of the Raj to explore imperialism. The Labourers of Herakles (1995) takes fragments of Phrynichos’ Halosis Miletou juxtaposed with the mad frenzy of Herakles to depict the horrors of war. The Kaisers of Carnuntum (1995) imagines an encounter between the Stoic Marcus Aurelius and the insane, violent, Commodus. Medea: A Sex-war Opera combines Euripides’ play with modern references to represent that a woman

            is what men desert;

in opera (as in life!) men hurt

and harm her

Though on a postcard to Jocelyn Herbert which directs her to resources for his ideas for the Oresteia Harrison refers to his ‘essential reading in militant feminism and champions of herstory’ (quoted in Herbert’s article ‘Filling the Space: Working with Tony Harrison on The Oresteia and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus’), women in the adaptations tend to be victims and mourners of men who have been killed in wars, and to be homogenised and ahistorical, as wars are. Harrison himself appeared as ‘The Spirit of Phrynichos’ in Labourers to remind the audience that the earlier dramatist

witnessing male warfare, gave the task

of mourning and redemption to the female mask

As in Harrison’s sources, though there is strong dialogue for women, there is little conception of female soldiers (other than the subjugated Amazons), military strategists, or policy-makers, and the only weapons that the female characters possess are withholding sex and holding protests for peace. In The Common Chorus I, Harrison’s adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, the women of Greenham Common dance and sing around missile silos, circling like Hesiod’s Muses on Helicon, but Part II, from Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women, dramatizes defeat, abuse and a future of slavery for the female characters, as does Harrison’s Hecuba.

Two major themes that underlie all of Harrison’s work are exemplified in two of his plays. His version of the Oresteia (1981) enacts the ways in which tragedy enabled the Greeks to present the worst things they could imagine and, as ‘Facing up to Muses’ tells us, to ‘gaze into terror as Nietzsche said, and yet not be turned into stone’. Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1988) forcibly argues that the barriers between high and low class and high and low art should be kicked down (preferably by clog-wearing satyrs).

The all-male, all-Northern cast of the Oresteia wore masks designed by Jocelyn Herbert, used only stylised body language, and spoke lines with a strong regular beat and emphasis on consonants. A note in the published version describes it as ‘a rhythmic libretto for masks, music, and an all-male company’. For Harrison, classical tragedy asserts the primacy of the word and the preservation of cultural memory, however painful. The unflinching gaze was enabled and maintained by performances in daylight and the use of masks. Theatre in the light of day made the events and the terror a shared experience, with shared culpability, enhanced by the mask’s ‘curious ability to look many people in the eye at the same time [….] when the Furies in the Oresteia talk about individual guilt no one in the audience felt let off the hook of moral scrutiny’.

Oswyn Murray, writing, like Herbert, in Neil Astley’s important anthology of works by and about Harrison, compares Louis MacNeice’s and Harrison’s translations of a chorus from the Oresteia. He notes that ‘Harrison’s is scarcely less accurate [than MacNeice’s], but it is far more direct; it has transposed the emotions into our terms’. He quotes:

Geldshark Ares god of War

broker of men’s bodies

usurer of living flesh

corpse-trafficker that god is –


wives    mothers    sisters    each one scans

the dogtags on the amphorae

which grey ashes are my man’s?

they sift the jumbled names and cry:


my husband sacrificed his life


my brother’s a battle martyr


aye, for someone else’s wife –


Helen, whore of Sparta.


whisper    mutter   belly-aching

the people’s beef and bile: this war’s

been Agamemnon’s our clanchief’s making

the sons of Atreus and their cause’.

The shared elements of Harrison’s poetry are here: conjoined words, including neologisms; colloquial terms; strong beats; audacious rhymes; words and lines divided by white space.

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus gave Silenus and his satyrs centre-stage and moving dialogue rather than relegating them to comic interludes. The divisions of the play are represented by the two academics plundering the rubbish pits of antiquity for papyrus fragments. One becomes Silenus, leader of the satyr-trackers, and one Apollo, custodian of high art (from which he excludes the satyr-trackers) and flayer of Silenus’ brother, Marsyas. Though the messages are serious, the play is also funny; its energy and exuberant iconoclasm evident from the minute the satyrs burst out of packing crates, pink phalloi waving, through their clog dancing, to their vandalising of the set’s papyrus screens. As ‘The Mother of the Muses’ notes, ‘there is no reason why a Greek chorus should sound like well-bred ladies from Cheltenham’. The satyrs don’t.

[Tracker 4]

Fellaheen, phallus-bearers only for farce.

Well, show us a tragedy we’ll show you our arse.

[Tracker 5]

Aeschylus, Sophocles, gerroff our backs.

We’re hijacking Culture and leaving no tracks.

Murray notes that Harrison’s texts take on the ‘flexibility of myth in the hands of the Greek tragedians’. We can see this in Harrison’s full-length feature film Prometheus (1998), which uses the myth to reiterate his poetry’s motifs and themes. Fire stolen from the gods is made a metaphor for inspiration and aspiration, and a symbol of defiance, in the form of an older man still smoking. It also stands for both the life-giving light of the sun and the death-bringing blast of weapons. Like his film poems The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992) and The Shadow of Hiroshima (1995), Prometheus depicts the human atrocities and environmental devastation of war. Following Shelley and others, the film makes Prometheus ‘a patron saint of Socialism’, as Harrison’s introduction says, bringing in class war, and Prometheus’ role in bringing writing to humankind is referenced in scenes about the power of language, memory and book-burning. The ahistorical aspect of Harrison’s work mentioned above is also transhistorical, in that his poetry doesn’t treat the texts of antiquity as closed but as vital stories which can have as many incarnations and combinations, and take on as many resonances as myth. Just as The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989) invites Voltaire, Molière, Omar Khayyam, Byron and Salman Rushdie to dinner, so we have the sense that Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripides, et. al are invited to a symposium with Harrison, from which slaves, women, non-Greeks and other undesirables are not excluded.

Many monographs, collections, articles, reviews and documentaries on Harrison’s work have been published and broadcast and no doubt more will follow. Harrison is clearly still leaving tracks and we are following them.

Sandie Byrne is Associate Professor in English, University of Oxford, and a fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford. She is the author of a number of books and articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, including Tony Harrison, Loiner (1997), H. v. & O: The Poetry of Tony Harrison (1999) and Tony Harrison and the Classics (2022).

Works cited

By Tony Harrison

Earthworks. Leeds: Northern House, 1964.

and James Simmons, Aikin Mata: The Lysistrata of Aristophanes. Ibadan: Oxford University Press, 1966.

The Loiners. London: London Magazine Editions, 1970.

Palladas: Poems. London: Anvil Press in Association with Rex Collings, 1975.

Phaedra Britannia. London: Rex Collings, 1975.

The Oresteia. London, Rex Collings, 1981.

US Martial. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1981.

v. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1985.

Medea: A Sex-war Opera (1985), music by Jacob Druckman, Theatre Works 1973-1985. London: Penguin, 1986, pp.363-448.

The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989) in Collected Film Poetry. London: Faber and Faber, 2007, pp133-52.

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

‘Facing up to the Muses’, Address to the Classical Association, Proceedings of the Classical Associaton 85 (1988); rprnt in Neil Astley, ed., Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies I. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp.429-54.

The Common Chorus. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.

The Gaze of the Gorgon. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1992.

The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

The Labourers of Herakles, Plays 3. London: Faber and Faber, 1996, pp.115-52.

The Kaisers of Carnuntum, Plays 3. London: Faber and Faber, 1996, pp.61-114.

Prometheus. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.

Hecuba (2005), Plays 6. London: Faber and Faber, 2019, pp.9-63.

Collected Film Poetry. London: Faber and Faber, 2007.

Collected Poems. London and New York: Viking, 2007.


Other authors:

Astley, Neil, ed., Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies I. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991.

Byrne, Sandie, ed., Tony Harrison: Loiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

                        ed., Tony Harrison and the Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

Hall, Edith, ed., New Light on Tony Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2019.

Herbert, Jocelyn, ‘Filling the Space: Working with Tony Harrison on The Oresteia and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus’, in Neil Astley, ed., Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies I. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, pp.281-6.

Hoggart, Richard, The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.

Marshall, Hallie, ‘Finding Patria and Pietas in Leeds: Tony Harrison and Virgil’s Aeneid’, English Studies 99: 1, 67-76.

Harrison, Stephen, ‘Tony Harrison and Rome’ in Sandie Byrne, ed., Tony Harrison and the Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022, pp.57-76.

Murray, Oswyn, ‘Tony Harrison: Poetry and the Theatre’ in Neil Astley, ed., Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies I. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp.262-74.