Here it is, more proof that the end of the world is just around the corner. Cambridge University students have been asked to compare the lyrics of the pop star Amy Winehouse with the poetry of Sir Walter Ralegh in a final year exam paper.Those taking the Practical Criticism paper were given a sheet containing the singer’s words to her single Love is a Losing Game and asked to contrast them with a work by the 16th century poet and explorer.
Winehouse’s song, which last week won her a songwriting prize at the Ivor Novello awards, includes the lines: “Why do I wish I never played/Oh, what a mess we made/And now the final frame/Love is a losing game.” The third-year English students taking the exam were also asked to compare Raleigh’s poem with songs by the rock star Bob Dylan and blues singer Billie Holiday. The exam question, sat on Thursday 22 May, read: “The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘lyric’ as ‘Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung’. It also quotes Ruskin’s maxim ‘lyric poetry is the expression by the poet of his own feelings’. “Compare poem (a) on the separate sheet [a lyric by Sir Walter Ralegh, written 1592] with one or two of the song-lyrics (b)-(d) with reference to these diverse senses of ‘lyric’.” Those who took the paper said they were surprised at the inclusion of lyrics by Winehouse in their exam. One student who sat the paper, who did not wish to be named until his paper had been marked, 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.” But a female final year English student added: “I think it’s cool – poetry doesn’t have to mean Keats and Byron but there were a lot of surprised people. You can’t prepare for questions like that.” Winehouse, 24, is as well known for her turbulent private life as her music. After showing early promise in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra she recorded her first album while still a teenager. Her struggles with drugs and drink were the source of the lyrics to her biggest hit, Rehab. But over the past year she has had to cancel a string of tour dates and has featured in newspapers and police stations more than onstage. She was cautioned for common assault and arrested on suspicion of possessing drugs, while her husband remains in jail awaiting trial for assault and perverting the course of justice. However controversy surrounding Winehouse pales into insignificance next to the life of Ralegh (1552 – 1618). He became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I after violently suppressing uprisings in Ireland and took part in the colonisation of the New World. But after he married one of her ladies-in-waiting without permission he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and was later sentenced to death after being accused of taking part in a plot against King James I. He was released but was arrested again and beheaded after attacking the Spanish during an expedition to find gold in the Americas. In addition, he wrote a history of the world as well as some of the best poetry of the Elizabethan age, became an MP in three counties and was a prominent landowner. Ralegh is also credited with bringing tobacco to England, something of which his fellow literary legend Winehouse would no doubt approve.