A bit of a mammoth read, at 380 pages. Great coverage of English Literature from the Medieval (e.g. Beowulf) to the present day, but in less detailed coverage from 1955 when the author starts to be influenced by present-day living writers.
I confirmed a lot about what I like to read, but inevitably discovered how much has passed me by. The book was slow reading because I read a lot of poetry in parallel as it was introduced, which was great fun.
Medieval I still want to try some of the Canterbury Tales in original Middle English (but would want a dual language edition). I enjoyed Seamus Heaney’s verse translation of Beowulf, particularly reading alongside his audio CD (was that cheating?). I read that a few years ago.
Tudor: Elizabethan literature was very interesting and full of colourful characters, Like Christopher Marlow: However, there isn’t much here for me for reading for pleasure. Shakespeare has a whole chapter to himself (almost! he has to share a few pages with Ben Johnson). But I really started to get interested in the Stuart literature: John Donne and Ben Johnson. I’ve read quite a bit of Donne’s prose but not yet much of his verse (It’s on the Amazon wish list though!). I now want to read Andrew Marvel more widely. Not sure about Paradise Lost as a good read. I will add Mac Flecknoe (John Dryden) to my (growing) list of things to read: I like the concept of an “empire of dullness”
The Augustan period produced the novel , with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which I hadn’t realised was written so early. Amongst the earliest ‘modern’ novels are Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (subtitled virtue rewarded). This was taken-off by Henry Fielding, who wrote Shamela, in which “a young prostitute’s vartue [sic] is a sham”. I’d like to read both the moral tale and the take-off. A must to add to the reading list is The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, about a feud between two families over a stolen lock of hair, and perhaps his Dunciad, following from Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe. Also by Fielding the famous The History of Tom Jones. I’ve seen bits of the film (which i didn’t like) but the books sounds very good. Similarly, I disliked the film version of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne but the books is so unconventional and remarkable that it is a must to read.
Largely the Romantics don’t appeal, with an exception for William Blake, classed as an ‘Early Romantic’. I have also found some parts of The Prelude (Wordsworth) incredibly inspirational and moving, but the rest of his verse is less appealing. However, I will give Byron’s Don Juan a go—it sounds really entertaining, as does Byron’s life and so I’ve added a recommended biography by Fiona MacCarthy to my wish list too.
The Victorian period gets pretty serious (as one might expect). I might try and read some Gerard Hopkins (although it looks a bit challenging and is a bit holy!). Dickens is described as an author everyone must read: so I guess I should (but I’m not inspired yet!) I’ll have a go at The Mill on The Floss by George Elliot, which is quite different from what I had previously imagined from the title. Another book that I had a wrong impression of is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles which sounds very dark and worthy of reading. Oscar Wilde gets a bit of a bashing, except for some of his plays. I would have argued this point except that the book is quite convincing!
In the 20th Century chapter there is a huge array of material and it gets harder to follow a historic perspective of literature, which the author recognises. I’ll need to have a go at some DH Lawrence, sounds like a good read. I’m also encouraged to try again (for the 9th time probably) Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve never got past Stephen’s stream-of-consciousness-on-the-beach chapter! The author of the ‘History’ writes of Ulysses:
Today it is read in universities, often in selection. Bits of it are brilliantly, outrageously comic. All of it is clever, most repays rereading, much has to puzzled out, some is simply showing off. Ulysses is difficult but not intellectual.
So that’s encouraging. I enjoyed being prompted to read T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock but I found his more major work, The Waste Land hard going. I’d love to read Vrginia Woolf’s Orlando but I realise that I’m heavily swayed by the stylish film version with Quentin Crisp, Jimmy Sommervile and Tilda Swinton (so that’s a DVD order too!). I gave up on To the Lighthouse and am now regretting giving the book tot he Amnesty Book Shop. With a clearer understanding of why I was reading it(!) I would have persevered. I think I’ll ask Tony whether he’s read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters as this appeals, but I suspect that it won’t when I read it. The author thinks that the literary merit of First World War poetry has been exaggerated, although he does call Sassoon “savagely effective”. However I was very pleased to be introduced to Edward Thomas.
This was a great read: it inspired me to read more and no doubt I’ll have a few challenges if I follow this reading list but a lot of fun! I can’t believe I’ve spent an hour writing this—I’ll view it as an investment.
“A History of English Literature (Palgrave Foundations)” (Michael Alexander)
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