Tag: literature

The Godless Canon

The Godless Canon

Is English literature naturally secular or has the canon been designed to marginalize religion?

The most startling[1] aspect of the canon of English literature that has come down to[2] us is how, from the earliest times, it questions, marginalizes and ignores religion. If we include Beowulf (C.9th?) in the canon (rather than[3] seeing Anglo-Saxon literature as a separate tradition that had little impact on what came after), we find a confused mishmash[4] of pagan monsters, Wyrd[5] and an Old Testament God who is clearly hands-off[6] in His approach[7] to humanity.

The next major work in the canon is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1380s?). Here the protagonist is a keen[8] believer in the power of the Virgin Mary, though this belief is undermined[9] in our eyes by the coexistence in his world of magic. In other words Christianity may be explicit but it is hardly[10] confirmed by being placed[11] in a fairy-tale[12] context.

Chaucer

The great canonical work in English of the Middle Ages is The Canterbury Tales (1400). Chaucer offers us a cast[13] made up of[14] a crusader knight[15], a prioress[16], a monk[17], a friar[18], a pardoner[19] and a summoner[20] (among others). However, these are brilliantly sardonic portraits[21], which thoroughly[22] question each of these overtly Christian characters’ true adherence to the faith they profess. The crusading knight is in fact a mercenary; the prioress is viciously[23] antisemitic coquette who shows more compassion for little animals than for the poor[24]; the lecherous[25] monk dedicates his time to hunting[26], and so on[27].

Shakespeare

The Middle Ages came to an end with the Reformation and from then on[28], authors could not count on there being[29] a single set of religious beliefs that their audience shared[30]. Indeed[31], with a spectrum of beliefs ranging[32] from the Puritan to the Anglican to the Roman Catholic, most authors opted for marginalizing religion. For instance, Shakespeare wrote one religious sonnet out of[33] 154. However, Shakespeare goes further and when he does present[34] religious characters they are ineffectual (Friar Laurence[35]), hypocritical (Angelo[36]), ignorant (Oliver Martext[37]) or corrupt (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely[38]). When Shakespeare includes a saint in his work – Joan of Arc – she is portrayed[39] as a witch[40]: La Pucelle. His most impressive creations are nihilistic worlds (such as the Albion of King Lear or the Scotland of Macbeth) or ones ruled[41] by magic (such as the Island in The Tempest or the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream). It is true that it was illegal to mention God on stage after 1603 but Shakespeare made no serious attempt to incorporate religion into his plays even before that.

Milton

The exception to the rule should be the towering[42] work of the 17th Century: Paradise Lost. Here we have an epic poem entirely dedicated to recounting the foundational stories of Christianity. However, even here the canon undermines9 religion, albeit unwittingly[43]. Despite Milton’s best intentions, later generations have found Satan by far[44] the most interesting character in the poem, and in a formal sense he is the central character. The Romantics went further and saw Satan as the hero of the piece.

The Rise of the Novel

The 18th Century saw the rise[45] of the novel and here again religion was marginalized and stories tended to be morally ambiguous. Where religious figures do appear[46] they tend to be hypocritical buffoons like Collins in Charlotte Brontë’s Pride and Prejudice or Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) or hypocritical villains like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1847) or Reverend Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853).

By the 20th Century the UK was one of the least religious countries in the world and the literature reflected the marginal place of organized faith in British society.

An Alternative Canon

What is fascinating for me is how artificial this focus is. Religious and moralistic literature has gradually been expunged[47] from the canon over the last 70 years. In fact, most surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The ‘other’ great work of the 14th Century was William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a poem entirely dedicated to how to lead[48] a god-fearing[49] life. Earlier generations studied George Herbert and John Bunyan as essential parts of 17th-century literature. Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) used to be considered an integral part of the rise of the novel. Only the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins[50] survives within[51] the canon as a testament to the long tradition of religious literature in English that existed alongside the modern canon.

I comment on all this not because I have any interest in restoring religious literature to its ‘rightful’ place in the canon but rather[52] to show how what we study as great literature is determined by contemporary tastes rather than[53] objective merit.

Indeed, the process of secularizing English literature has been reversed somewhat in recent years. This has not been because of a renewed interest in religion but because of a wish to rediscover women writers. As a result, the religious writings of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Locke and Christina Rossetti are all being read again.

 

[1] startling – surprising, shocking

[2] to come down to (come-came-come) – reach, be inherited by

[3] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

[4] mishmashmixture

[5] Wyrd – a pagan Germanic concept similar to destiny

[6] hands-offnon-interventionist

[7] approach – (in this case) attitude

[8] keen – enthusiastic

[9] to undermineweaken, debilitate

[10] hardlynot really

[11] to place – put

[12] fairy-tale (adj.) – magical, fantastical

[13] cast – (in this case) a group of protagonists

[14] to be made up of – consist of

[15] knight – mediaeval soldier who fought on horseback

[16] prioresswoman who manages a priory/convent (directly subordinate to an abbess)

[17] monk – religious man who lives in a monastery

[18] friarmember of a mendicant order such as a Dominican or a Franciscan

[19] pardoner – sb. licenced to sell papal pardons and indulgences

[20] summoner – an officer for a mediaeval ecclesiastical court

[21] portrait – (in this case) description

[22] thoroughly – effectively, exhaustively

[23] viciouslyfiercely

[24] the poorpoor people

[25] lecherous – lascivious

[26] huntingchasing and killing animals for pleasure

[27] and so on – et cetera, etc.

[28] from then onafter that

[29] count on there being – assume that there was

[30] to sharehave in common

[31] indeed – (emphatic) in fact

[32] to range – stretch, span, vary

[33] out of – from a total of

[34] does present – (emphatic) presents, creates

[35] in Romeo and Juliet

[36] in Measure for Measure

[37] in As You Like It

[38] in Henry V

[39] to portray – present, depict

[40] witchwoman who practises black magic

[41] to rulegovern, control

[42] towering – (in this case) exceptional, supreme

[43] albeit unwittinglyeven though this is not intentional

[44] by far – unquestionably, easily

[45] rise – (in this case) emergence, appearance

[46] do appear – (emphatic) appear

[47] to expunge – erase, delete, eliminate

[48] to lead (lead-led-led) – (in this case) live

[49] godfearing – devoutly religious

[50] an English Jesuit

[51] within – in

[52] but rather – (in this case) I comment on it

[53] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Photo: London Bridge by Robert Dimov

[1]

Mrs Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She was wrong and one of the reasons she was wrong was literature. Much of literature, like religion, tells us how to behave[2], especially in extreme circumstances. Works like Beowulf and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are essentially conduct books[3]. In this sense literature is propaganda from the past for the future. However, unlike[4] religion, literature is flexible and naturally inclusive.

In his Nobel acceptance speech this week Bob Dylan mused[5], “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school[6]. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by[7]. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics[8]. And the themes from those books worked their way into[9] many of my songs, either knowingly[10] or unintentionally.”

A similar process occurred when the band Oasis took the name of the greatest British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and transformed it in the title and refrain for their song Don’t Look Back in Anger (1995). Over the last fortnight[11] that refrain[12] has been used by Mancunians[13] both to console and to define their reaction of “love conquers hate” in the wake of[14] the terrorist attack in Manchester.

Many would baulk against[15] the idea that a mere pop song could be considered literature. More would be affronted[16] by the idea that literature – let alone[17] pop lyrics7 – could compete with religion. But the greatest British poet of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, described literature as “Fragments… shored[18] against my ruins”. In other words bits of legends, stories, plays and poems are what we use to console ourselves in times of need – be they Cervantes, Charles Dickens or John Osborne.

That famous quote comes from Eliot’s cento[19] at the end of his greatest poem, The Wasteland (‘What the Thunder[20] Said’, ll. 426-31) [1922], which ends:

Shall I at least set my lands in order[21]?

London Bridge is falling down[22] falling down falling down[23]

Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina[24]

Quando fiam uti chelidon[25]O swallow[26] swallow[27]

Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie[28]

These fragments I have shored18 against my ruins.

Why then Ile fit you[29]. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.[30]

Shantih[31] Shanith Shantih.

London Bridge is not falling down22, thanks to the robust mix of multicultural voices and the literature we have shored18 against our ruins.

[1] to shore up – reinforce, fortify, strengthen

[2] to behave – act, conduct oneself

[3] conduct bookguide to social norms

[4] unlike – in contrast to

[5] to muse – (in this case) write thoughtfully

[6] grammar school – (US English) elementary school

[7] to measure things by – to evaluate experience

[8] lyrics – the words to a song

[9] worked their way into – be inserted in a subtle way

[10] knowingly – intentionally

[11] fortnight – two weeks

[12] refrainline that is frequently repeated in a song

[13] Mancunian – sb. from Manchester

[14] in the wake offollowing, after

[15] to baulk against – resist, not accept

[16] to affront – offend, insult

[17] let alone – much less

[18] shored – accumulated, a. up to support a building, b. (of a catch of fish) brought ashore

[19] centoliterary text created from lines/fragments by other authors

[20] thunderloud noise generated by a storm (= tempest)

[21] shall I set my lands in order – will I reorganize my kingdom appropriately?

[22] to fall down (fall-fell-fallen) – collapse

[23] a line from a famous nursery rhyme (= traditional children’s song) that probably has its origin in the ritual of human sacrifice in blessing new buildings

[24] “(remember later on my pain). He hid himself in the fire which refines them” from Dante’s Inferno

[25] from The Virgil of Venus (anonymous) “When shall I be like the swallow?” (i.e. able to sing and fly away/escape). The refrain of the poem promises love to all.

[26] swallow – (Hirundinidae) very fast migratory insectivorous songbird

[27] “O swallow swallow” comes either from The Princess by Tennyson or Itylus (= Philomel) by Swinburne

[28] “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” from The Disinherited (El Desdichado) (1865) by Gérard de Nerval (1808-55)

[29] Why then Ile (= I’ll) fit you – I’ll give you exactly that. The line is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: Hieronymo’s Mad Againe (c.1589). Hieronymo is asked to produce a court play. Superficially, he says he will do it, but he is really saying that he will use theatre to trap the murderers of his son.

[30] Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata – give, show compassion, and control yourself; from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) text

[31] Shantih – (the Sanskrit conclusion to an Upanishad) peace, amen, shalom, As-Salaam-Alaikum