The Grumpy Git’s Guide to Mastering English Literature

Mr. Chaucer, Geoff is a medieval literary scamp of the finest order, with a wit as ready as it is irreverent. He would fit ‘write’ into a group of Lahori club cricketers. This ‘verray parfit, gentil knight’ is a troll personality whose Canterbury Tales are a thoroughly ‘improper and indelicate’ mixture of ‘heyer’ things with traits d’esprit and cruel mockery done in all seriousness. The most appallingly modern writer could not dream this up without blenching; for this is more than modern – or shall we say timeless? – in its general spirit. This is vintage escroquerie, done with finesse and with a degree of class.

John Milton is the kind of poet one admires most dutifully but falls asleep reading. He’s good – very good – but he is a pedant withall, most insufferably sure of himself sometimes, at others even more unbearably pathetic in his attempts to seem in control when he’s not. And surely his he-man-wonan-haters’ club agenda must outrage all women and all but the thickest-pated of men; or else arouse a wincing pity that pulls up only a little short of disgust. Paradise Lost is a classic example of a J.M. production which will send you nodding off, or else singing Sister Suffragette with Winifred Banks. But then, some lines leap off the page and begin to thrum within you, and you wonder why you would ever not consider this stuff absolutely beyond awesome. They are few and far between, but if you know you’ll find a nugget at the bottom of the pail, the sand is well worth the sifting, right? Even when the sifting must be done with gritted teeth.

Donne reading? You’re undone … lol … well, sometimes. Every now and then there is an image, a word, a line, that you wish you’d written yourself. His ‘Love and Divine Poems’ often exhibit a fervour that can be inspiring, embarrassing, or just seem like a league-level topi-drama (depending on how snarky a mood you’re in). And then there’s all the PG500 stuff –

Alexander Pope writes anagrams in ‘heroic’ couplets, nifty little Pierian Spring thingies we can all rattle off when we desperately need to feel literate. Duh he wrote other stuff, but nobody cares. He likes a chuckle, old Alex, but his jests are usually of the ‘leaf me alone. I’m bushed’ variety, and his ho ho ho misogyny can sometimes be rather annoying. As for his chef d’oeuvre – concerning which non-eng-lit people tend to form the most disturbing assumptions – everyone knows the context and the story but almost no one has actually read it. Boy clips lock, girl flips, the fams start playing Capulets v Montagues II, M. le Pope decides to troll everyone a little. Voila, the ‘supernatural machinery’ is brought forth, and we have The Rape of the Lock, often referred to as ‘TROTL’ by lit students with paranoid parents.

Wyatt and Surrey … Kheros and Nevarone … Henry Howard apparently got ‘a head off the rest’, old Thomas went out with a Queen, and put them all in a Towering rage. In general these two buds seem to have burnt the candle at both ends and in the middle to boot. When they weren’t ‘breaking the windows of sleeping people’ or writing imprudent acrostics, they contrived to have half-a-dozen rotten kids apiece, introduce the Sonnet into English Literature, and leave behind an ample body of work. Hats off, mes enfants, to the Founding Fathers of Multitasking!

Sophocles reads like Jeffery Archer dyed in the Ancient Greek mode. His Oedipus Rex is blockbuster thriller material, the kind which would have a really high rating on imdb, but which you wouldn’t actually watch because of the alarming parent advisory. Back in his own day the pop-corn people must have done good business when one of his plays was on: after all, it isn’t every day that The Return of the King includes The Lost Prince killing his Dad and jumping the broomstick with his Mum.

Christopher Marlowe has a style most curiously akin to Bro William’s … he has, perhaps, less of a taste for bad jokes and more of a penchant for high-flights. All the conspiracy theories aside, this is a playwright you ought to want to read. Dr. Faustus has the J.M. problem of Too Much Adoe, and the Pope problem of ‘supernatural machinery’, which is just as grating here; but it is, enfin, a chef d’oeuvre.

William Shakespeare – awesome writer, gigantic jerk. You either want to write rave reviews or brain the blithering man with a baguette, depending on the play you’re reading. As for the jests, which are in jolly bad taste and would undoubtedly earn someone a sock or two if he went about cracking them (like House, for instance), the language mercifully acts as an automatic censor. Most kids today (especially the ones who have never actually read the guy’s work) have trouble adjusting to the fact that such a ‘great’ writer won public acclaim by cracking street-circus jokes. Will & co. offer you the complete catharsis package in every play: pick your own flavour of Shan masala according to the dish you want to eat. But there is a genuine poesy to the plays too, a peculiar magic that you usually feel not while you are reading Shakespeare but while you’re reading someone who isn’t Shakespeare. Let’s pick two plays to work with – say, Othello and A Winter’s Tale. Black guy kills white girl because he’s duped by scheming white guy: this has to be the most ‘politically incorrect’ play in literary history, and today someone would undoubtedly have lynched the author for having the nerve to write it. With A Winter’s Tale we have two mega-quibbles. The narration of half the ending by rascals and shepherds is exasperating: give it to us from the life! And a little boy DIES. A prince. Does nobody even care?

Wilde, Oscar would have been a wildly popular nominee for an Oscar. He is another brilliant and colossal jerk with the ability to turn a phrase gloriously well. This emo is one of the few writers who can make one laugh and cry and swear all at once: he can shock you, delight you, inspire you, make you want to yell at him to shut up already – but he’ll never bore you for a second. In The Importance of Being Ernest, he’s posing as usual, but with less of a pretense at believing his own concoctions. This is a twisted grin that twitches off into a grimace only as the curtain begins to fall.

Anthony Trollope has a lazily acute way of cantering through a story in a morning-coat, with a didactic mission he can pull out of his pocket as a passport through raised eyebrows. Barchester Towers is a long slow ride across a thousand miles of desert-country. You hail every cactus with a fresh appreciation which you would certainly not in another work accord to what is basically a grotesque green stump.

Jane Austen: my heroine. ‘Dear Aunt Jane’ is a lady of few illusions, who holds her rapier sheathed in a cloak, ever ready for the drawing. Her calm acceptance of life’s ironies – acceptance of, not submission to – is a noble example to us all. She did not work herself into hysterics, she laughed and wrote novels. Pride and Prejudice is her most readily likeable novel, because the sting of the unpalatable is coated with sparkling wit. Some people have objected very strongly to her, of course, including Mark Twain, who actually does much the same thing himself, only in a far more savage fashion.

George Eliot – or rather, Marian Evans – has the ‘messed-up kid’ touch of the truly great writer. She has an anguished sincerity which surpasses the Bronte sisters, even Emily, but the amertume which spurs her to brilliance can actually mar it in the execution. And she’s maybe the most intelligent female writer you’ll ever run into who’s also a thorough-going misogynist. As for Adam Bede, it is not The Mill on the Floss. That’s almost the only thing wrong with it.

Charles Dickens, the chap who wrote the first bestseller. One kid on an Eng-Lit forum called him ‘that senti Victorian guy who wrote about starving kids and stuff’ (spelling and syntax radically modified). An accurate description, if not exactly comprehensive. The thing that ensures Dickens’ eternal popularity isn’t his ability to caricature, the accuracy of his depictions of people and places, or the universality of his themes. (Thackeray, for example, can do all three better when he’s in the zone). It’s his ability to plumb an emotion to its depths without flinching, without so much as a trace of embarrassment, and without losing his own head for a second while he’s got you whirling around on that coaster. A Tale of Two Cities is his fastest, coolest novel, because of the storyline, because of Sydney Carton, and because of the beauty of the words themselves. The only issue you’ll have with it (especially if you’re a woman) is the positively dumbed-down characterisation of Lucie Manette. No one can faint that often or that easily, not even a susceptible young girl laced into a crinoline, without having a medical condition that needs to be checked out. And we have no clue what goes on inside that golden head – her son dies: nothing. Her husband is locked up by people who want to kill him: nothing. Her father loses his wits: nothing. A man dies for her sake: nothing. She remains sweet and constant, faints and trembles and cries but bears up nobly. End of story.

Thomas Hardy – the top tragedy-man. A newer writer than most on this list, which has been described by one young critic as being composed of ‘Two men, two women, and Thomas Hardy’. Interesting, non? We must base our erratum on his depictions of women. Full marks for actually trying (unlike most guys), but as you read his books, you have serious ‘here you miss, or there exceed the mark’ reservations, because he never quite grasps the core of his women characters. According to several young literary critics from the other side of the fence, Charlotte Bronte has the same problem; never been able to see it myself, though. As for The Return of the Native, it equals the old man wrestling with Egdon Heath. That image says it all.

Mr Francis Bacon – another one of Queen Eliza’s Merry Men. An essayist of both wit and kind-wit, i’faith. He’s good at what he does, but he leaves one in little doubt that he means not the half of it. Wherein lies his fascination. ‘Tell the truth’ is – boring. ‘Tell the truth’ (Hah! Who ya kiddin’?) – that now, that’s interesting. His essays? Of this, Of that, and Of the other. Of sunglasses, Of iphones …

M. Jonathan le très Swift. This charming gentleman’s style is the mainstay of all those who hold that people do not generally imbibe the characteristics denoted by their names. It figures, one might be tempted to suppose, that Gulliver’s Travels is listed among the essays and philosophical discourses, not among the novels. This is one of the few books of which I’d actually recommend that you read an abridged version, for the sake of your sanity. Unless, of course, you are a die-hard Jonny Swift fanwarrior.

Bertrand Russell is generally the first philosopher whose essays lead one to suspect that philosophy might not after all be arrant humbug cooked up by geeks hunting for jobs. His work is also the perfect example of how the most clearly traced logic can be utterly misguided. As for the Unpopular Essays, suffice it to say that they are unpopular for the same reason that assures their popularity.

Edward Said – the iconic exile of the Arab world. He can write good sense with lucidity, and his book on Palestine is the most trenchant explanation of the issue I’ve come across, written with clarity and a positively heroic attempt at impartiality. If we consider Culture and Imperialism, however, or most of his other work, one tends to know more about this guy’s books than of them.

Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery: one cross aunty, one dead girl and two old men. One may grudgingly acknowledge that they often say things that need to be said and that they are not without their flashes of genuine poesy; but they are almost too new to be considered canonical ‘literature’ at all. Indeed, I suspect one or two of them may still be alive! Alack, the horror! If they would only end-stop and trimly rhyme their poems one might bring oneself to forgive them, but as it is – least said, soonest mended.

As for Seamus Heaney’s Redress, it is very nicely written as essays go, but it does not serve to redeem his own Poetry, and so is of scant benefit to this goof troop. He cannot possibly succour the kind of ‘poetry’ that needs redress; the kind that does not has no need of lectures to bolster it.

Eugene O’Neill is quite frankly fustian. Mourning becomes Electra is composed of three plays centered on the loopiest family of pseudo-post-Civil-War want-wits available for comment, all of them cutting capers too crazy even to be accounted amusing – here Drury Lane meets Sigmund Freud with a vengeance.

Arthur Miller, on the other hand, compensates for being new by being excellent. The Crucible is quite simply unforgettable. It’s immense, frenzied, with an ‘Iku Ze 3,2,1 Make Some Noise’ tempo; and like A View from the Bridge and All My Sons, there’s an inch of depth chucked in unobtrusively somewhere in the mix.

Papa Hemingway’s style has its fans – often quite incomprehensibly. The Old Man and the Sea is the one Hemmingway which seems to have been written in earnest, but this – one would like, enfin, to recite the epigraph with an axe poised over the author’s head: “Ask not For Whom The Bell Tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Toni Morrison – modern and American. The first time one reads Jazz one must bite back the desire to send the book spinning across the room and leave it there, until winter comes and the gas gives out. But it does grow on you, little by little, rather like the genre of music after which it is named.

There you go. Now echo, quote, or otherwise endorse these statements as you please, but do so at your own risk: this author disclaims all responsibility for the cracked pate you will thereby acquire.

One thought on “The Grumpy Git’s Guide to Mastering English Literature

  1. As a once and former literature major, I completely enjoyed reading this–even the observations I might argue over an espresso in a cafe. Your comments about Chaucer are spot on. I enjoyed him in high school, where he was assigned reading for Advanced English, and felt certain our “fetch me the smelling salts” teacher would never have assigned his Canterbury Tales if she’d ever read them. Thankfully, she hadn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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