OUR understanding works by metaphor. Ideas connect through images and tones. Words make sound as well as sense. When we communicate, we do so through the transport of language, in a world of real things. For the poet, this is the great attraction of the actuality of words. As the English critic IA Richards says, “Berkeley was fond of talking about […] ‘bare notions’ [and] ‘naked undisguised ideas’ [...] But an idea or a notion, when unencumbered and undisguised, is no easier to get hold of than one of those oiled and naked thieves who infest the railway carriages of India.”

Here’s the American poet William Carlos Williams once again: “Now you notice what I said. There is no subject that the modern poem cannot approach. There is no selected material. It’s what you do with the work of art. It’s what you put on the canvas and how you put it on that makes the picture. It’s how the words fit in. Poems are not made of thoughts, of beautiful thoughts. It’s made of words. Pigments, put on, here, there, made, actually.”

Even there, Williams is using metaphors and similes – poems are made of words, but the words go on the page like paint on the canvas or like musical tones in the air. Ezra Pound tells us that poetry “withers and ‘dries out’ when it leaves music too far behind”.

The musical component of language is at its keenest in poetry, and it’s always on the point of transcending its own location, literally: when you speak or sing, the sound leaves your body, and when music gives itself to air, its particular location dissolves. Poetry, like music, can be carried elsewhere in the mind and mortal memory.

A final word of advice from Williams: “To understand the modern poem, listen to it. And it should be heard. It’s very difficult sometimes to get it off the page, but once you hear it, then you should be able to appraise it. In other words, if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem. All art is made to please: that’s the way it approaches you.”

“All art is made to please” – and even the most tragic and difficult of great art is made to affirm, as surely as popular art is made to delight. This is as true of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1600) as it is of The Lion King (1994). Even with its happy ending, the proximity of Disney’s film to the state of Denmark with its wicked uncle and hesitant prince returns us to the notion of maps: the medium, language and happy conclusion may be different, but the terrain is surely familiar. This relation of old maps and new takes us to the heart of the matter. A philistine disregard of Shakespeare or an élitist disdain of Disney are equally inappropriate. The point is they are connected. Even inadequate maps are better than no maps at all. At least they show that the land is there. As Pound says, “the value of old work is constantly affected by the new” and “there is no reason why the same man should like the same books at 18 and 48”.

So, could we briefly sketch a map of the modern world to suggest the kind of terrain we live in?

Begin with Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c.1610) then go on to Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and then to Melville’s Mardi (1849) and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901). These bring us to the beginning of the 19th century and the work of Joseph Conrad. The popular counterparts of Conrad’s late Victorian, early modern story, Heart of Darkness (1899) are John Buchan’s imperialist thriller Prester John (1910), where racism goes hand-in-hand with Scots Calvinism, and the series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs about that acrobatic virtuoso linguist, Tarzan of the Apes (1912-1965) – of whom, more later.

In the 20th century, the constellation of writers using post-imperial forms of English escalates beyond prediction.

The literature of empire frequently describes experiences of exploration, colonialism and conquest. Each author enters a crucible of cultures, languages, races and nationalities. It’s neatly defined by the links between Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne (1572-1631), referring to his lover’s body as an “America”, a “new-found land”, and the principal character in Wilson Harris’s 1960s novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960), who is also named Donne. From a 16th-century poet of colonial expansion to a 20th-century novelist writing out of the “post-colonial” West Indies, the opening and closing of an era can be described. The body of writing contained by this map is caught up by shifting political energies, on a global stage.

IN the last two hundred years of this period there have been five major areas of volcanic activity. The first is the rise of the chorus of voices of formerly silenced people: women, the working class, “others” defined by race or predilection.

The second is the phenomenal rise in mass-produced literature, pulp fiction, comic books, films, radio and television. Genre fiction becomes established: the Romance, Westerns, Thrillers, Horror, Science Fiction. Popular mass-culture is maybe the most remarkable characteristic of the modern world.

Then there’s the way in which the Romantic movement developed in written fiction. An international but Eurocentric movement which involved all the arts, Romanticism was inherited and retained in America, Russia, and in Scotland, and more generally in popular culture. But the high culture of England abandoned it.

The fourth crucial change in the cultural map of the modern world is the rise to dominance of American power, after World War Two. Internationally, the United States became the most significant cultural authority both as a source and as an arbiter of cultural models. Romantic heroes and glamorous women are only the most obvious examples.

The fifth change happened since the 1980s: information technologies, online resources, the rapid escalation of the relatively unregulated availability of a chaotic morass of data, of one kind or another.

Mapping changes like this might seem a hopeless activity. Even the continents have moved from Gondwanaland to where they are now. But the metaphor of mapping helps us to imagine a different kind of geography, a different set of human relations in space and time. We all set out from different places and see different things, but we all set out to begin with, and that’s as true of David Balfour in Stevenson’s Victorian Kidnapped (1886) as it is of Wilson Harris’s “post-colonial” Black Marsden (1972). Balfour sets out like this: “I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house.”

And Harris’s weary world-traveller is described in the opening sentence of Black Marsden like this: “I came upon him in a corner of the ruined Dunfermline Abbey of Fife like a curious frozen bundle that may have been blown across seas and landscapes to lodge here at my feet.”

This is why the figure of Odysseus or Ulysses is so central to our cultural tradition: the metaphor of his voyage, his journey in quest of a home he has almost forgotten, after years of war and travel, has an essential likeness to the human story, the return to an earth that will never let us really leave.

There is an even larger map we might unroll now. We’ll do that next week.