Matthew Sperling

‘The Most Intelligent Entity on the Island’

Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer

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Poems

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A rich body of legend has gathered around the figure of J H Prynne. In Iain Sinclair’s novel Radon Daughters (1994) he becomes Simon Undark, ‘hermit and scribe, the conscience of England’, ‘famous for his goldfish tie’, ‘the most intelligent entity on the island’: ‘At England’s darkest hour, initiates muttered Undark’s name like a password.’ In Yellow Submarine (1968), the Beatles-inspired film, he becomes Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD, the blue-faced, posh-voiced, cuddly cartoon polymath, ‘eminent physicist, polyglot classicist, prize-winning botanist…’ An essay by Emily Witt looks into the Cambridge cult of Prynne with an outsider’s mixed awe and scepticism: ‘They said that he spoke with a lisp. They said that he was an avid philologist, and had a giant file devoted to the word “dust,” and believed that it was imperative to learn Anglo-Saxon.’

Initiates make the highest claims for Prynne’s work. For Keston Sutherland, ‘Prynne’s poetry of the 1960s is as intellectually ambitious as Milton’s of the 1660s’, setting out a ‘prospectus for philosophic song’ that was ‘astronomically

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