Last Friday — Friday the 23rd May, that is to say — I had my last ever exam. I’ll be talking about that soon. I’ll be talking about a lot of things. This blog is about to get retrospective. Real retrospective. But before that, I’m going to talk about a subject that I’ve been thinking about ever since I started this English degree at Leicester:
Who are the lamest major authors in English literature?
That’s right. The question’s always been on my mind, but now I’m at the end of my degree I’m able to look back. I can now see which of the famous English writers I’ve not been set. I haven’t encountered Ben Jonson, or Emily Brontë, or D. H. Lawrence. This isn’t necessarily because they’ve not been on the course, but because my seminar tutors haven’t chosen them. Considering that there’s generally one text per week per course, it’s my estimate that two of those texts vary between tutors per course, whereas the majority are core texts.
Why am I saying this? Not to disparage Jonson, or Brontë, or Lawrence (who I’ve managed to avoid twice). I’m saying it because it’s got me wondering about the big authors that nobody’s been set. And I don’t mean bad authors; I mean authors who were giants in their time but who you couldn’t pay people to study now. Titans who have fallen off the curriculum into an awkward limbo. I’ve settled on a group I’m calling the Big Three. See if you can spot the trends.
This one I just can’t get behind. Everything about John Lydgate (c. 1370 – c. 1451) is so great. In his own words, Lydgate was known “To scoffe and mowe like a wanton ape / Whan I dyd evyll other I dyd abuse”. You have to admire his honesty. Lydgate was a giant of the fifteenth century, truly the heir to Chaucer. I think the problem lies in his output: at the very least, he wrote 145,000 lines. That’s simply far too much for the average person to trust. His nine-volume epic on the caprices of fortune (the Middle Ages’ favourite
and only topic), the Fall of Princes, may have something to do with it. Perhaps he should have heeded his own advice. I hear that Lydgate is coming back into fashion nowadays, after a long period of embarassing obscurity. I say good for him.
John Dryden (1631 – 1700) is a strange case too. Nobody would claim he isn’t one of the most important figures in English literature, but let’s do a spot check: how many of these Dryden masterpieces have you read? The Conquest of Granada, Amphitryon, Absalom and Achitophel, The Hind and the Panther. The correct answer is zero. How about Annus Mirabilis? Ah, you know that one, eh? But you haven’t read it.
There’s no need to be embarrassed. Dryden just isn’t as entertaining as his contemporaries. I don’t think Dryden’s militant classicism has done much to endear him to the general public either: this is a man who chose distinctly the wrong side to be on when it comes to pedantic Latinate grammatical interference with the English language. It simply goes to show that you can be the leading topical writer of your time, but if you’re not down with the kids you’ll just be remembered as the guy who wore two mountain goats on his head.
Unlike the previous two authors, it’s really no surprise that Robert Southey (1774 – 1843) isn’t popular these days. This guy’s just a heroic sellout. An early Romantic with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Southey didn’t even let the paint dry before he turned to the establishment. Read any book about the Romantics and you can be pretty confident Southey won’t come out of it well. It’s not as if we can expect him to read the future, but Southey just bet on the wrong horse again and again. The man trashed the later Romantics. He told Charlotte Brontë that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life’. He became poet laureate and prolifically sucked up to the monarchy for thirty years. Oh Robert. You were the greatest of them all, in your way.
DISCLAIMER: The author of this blog claims no responsibility for the extremely unfair generalisations made about these three major poets. It also in no way disparages the looks of the handsome Robert Southey.