10 Underrated Things I Love About English Literature

My fiancée has been contributing recently to a project called “10 Things I Love About My Country”, the idea being that she and two other bloggers identify 10 (or so) examples of things they love from their countries (USA, England and Scotland) in 10 different fields. This week she is writing about writers, a topic close to my heart, and encouraged me to do likewise. Neither of us has had an easy time with this: we share an interest in literature and have struggled to narrow our loves down to 10. I quickly gave up on trying to create a definitive list of the “Best Books”. I also had to give up on writing about my favourite books and authors: it was far too predictable! Finally I settled on two criteria: the book or writer must matter to me for some reason, and I must consider them to be underappreciated for the esteem in which I hold them. It would make me very happy to think more people were reading these, and I would love to know below what books or authors you feel deserve a wider audience than they currently receive.

1. The Dream of the Rood (~700-1,000AD)

This poem is fantastic: it was one of my earliest introductions to Anglo Saxon literature and probably had the biggest impact on me of anything else I have read from that period. Understandably, most people’s understanding of poetry from that time will be limited to Beowulf since it has made a far bigger impact in popular culture. But that would be seriously to neglect a work of great beauty.

The Dream of the Rood is a dream vision of the cross used in the crucifixion of Christ and the middle of the poem is dedicated to the cross’s own words. The poem straddles the divide between the new Christian faith which it is about and the old pagan beliefs from whence its imagery is derived. How new the Christian faith was when the poem was written is a matter of some debate: the manuscript is from the 10th century but the words spoken by the cross can be found in runic inscription on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross (pictured above). Of course, the Ruthwell Cross being Scottish, it is possible that I am unfairly attributing this poem to an English writer. However, I think it more likely than not that this is English for three reasons: Ruthwell was originally a part of Northumbria and only later became Scottish; there is reasonably strong evidence supporting Cynewulf’s authorship of the poem and he was either from Northumbria or Mercia; and the manuscript itself is West Saxon. You can find reproductions of the original manuscript, a transcription, a glossary and a translation at this handy site.

2. Pearl (late 14th century)

This is the second dream vision on my list. I spent a lot of time studying these and actually wrote my dissertation on William Langland’s Piers Plowman (which is wonderful but a bit long for me to be recommending). Dream visions were hugely popular during the mediaeval period and the term refers to a general structure whereby a speaker falls asleep, dreams about events usually allegorical in nature which reveal an important truth, then wakes. Hotel California would be a good modern example. Chaucer wrote a number of these and is probably the best known writer from the period. He was a contemporary of the anonymous author of Pearl who also wrote Gawain and the Green Knight.

Pearl is a highly complex poem, both in terms of its meaning and its structure. It appears to deal predominantly with two issues: the death of a child, and the will of God. The image of the pearl is frequently used in the poem and reflected in the structure. The text consists of 101 12-line stanzas with a regular rhyme scheme, grouped into units of 5 stanzas (except for one instance of 6 stanzas forming the group). The poet repeats a word from the last line of the preceding stanza in the first line of the next and achieves circularity by having the final word of the poem contained within its opening line. For both its crafting and its content, I adore this poem.

3. Margery Kempe (c.1373-c.1438)

The Book of Margery Kempe is probably the first autobiography to have been written in English and is doubly unusual for having been dictated by a woman. It provides an insight into female mediaeval life which is rarely seen and Kempe’s life proves rather interesting. The text begins around the time of Kempe’s first pregnancy which was difficult and, following the birth, caused Kempe to spend half a year suffering from delusions and other psychological trauma (sensitively handled by chaining her up in a storeroom). From that point onwards, Kempe became incredibly devout and believed she saw visions of Christ and had numerous religious experiences.

She did this while continuing to lead a normal life: she had at least 13 more children and ran two businesses. Eventually though she and her husband agreed to a chaste marriage and that started a period of more intense religious devotion. Kempe went on a number of pilgrimages including one to the Holy Land. She joins the ranks of a number of other female mystics from around that time such as Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich in terms of people venerating her, particularly after her death. However, she stands apart from these by being very well travelled and, despite a publication presenting her as an anchoress, we have no real evidence that she ever withdrew from secular society. That said, it is quite clear that Kempe would have made a poor travelling companion: most of her methods for expressing her religious devotion were ostentatiously public and sometimes seen as designed to shame others. They also frequently involved a great deal of weeping which tended to piss people off (to a point where she was arrested for it), particularly when they were trapped on boats with her. Kempe’s book is fascinating and we are lucky to have it: it only exists in one manuscript, discovered in the 1930s by (the American) Hope Emily Allen.

4. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

Born in the same year as Shakespeare, Marlowe died on 30th May 1593 having produced a mere 7 plays. Although not nearly as accomplished a playwright as Shakespeare, I would contend that Marlowe was in many ways a better dramatist. He was also at heart one of our last mediaeval writers, and his plays are spectacles belonging more to the morality play traditions than to the new psychological explorations which mark some of Shakespeare’s better-known plays.

No play of Marlowe’s lacks flaws and all have moments that are not particularly good. I recently went to see a performace of Edward II at the National Theatre and the best praise I can give it is that it was consistently interesting. When watching Marlowe, one waits for the gems, whether that be the increasingly spectacular conquering scenes of Tamburlaine, or the final soliloquy from Doctor Faustus. It is particularly impressive that Marlowe was capable of creating works of such quality in his 20s and it is impossible not to wonder what could have been had he lived longer. Moreover, with this output he, along with Thomas Kyd, changed the course of Elizabethan theatre, ushering in a period of complexity in plot and character, blank verse, and vivid imagery which would come to characterise the period and especially Shakespeare’s work, upon which Marlowe had a clear and identifiable influence.

5. The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

“Desert Island Discs” has been broadcast for over 70 years on BBC Radio 4 and provided the backdrop to many of my childhood Sunday mornings. The premise is simple: a notable guest is asked to imagine themselves stranded on a desert island and must pick 8 pieces of music they would wish to have with them. At the end of the show, the guest is invited to choose two books. They may take for granted that they have the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible (or another equivalent religious text). I doubt many would argue the primacy that Shakespeare and the Bible hold in the English canon: they have probably had the greatest degree of influence on subsequent writing over any other work. But the consequence of holding these two texts up over all others is that some highly influential works are neglected.

I would contend that the Book of Common Prayer is one of those neglected. What Cranmer started in 1549 blossomed into one of the defining texts of the Anglican community and formed the basis of many people’s faiths. It is important to remember that the majority of the population for most of English history was not literate, but was churchgoing. Exposure to religion did not come via written texts but direct from the pulpit, and the Book of Common Prayer provided the words for that. Most of Shakespeare’s Biblical references come from the Prayer Book, as do the phrases “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, “Speak now or forever hold your peace”, and even “Peace in our time”, which Obama used in his 2013 inaugural address (although this article rather ignorantly attributes the phrase to Chamberlain who actually talked of “Peace for our time”, since he was borrowing from Disraeli who said likewise). The Book of Common Prayer is one of the most important works to come out of this country and its language is beautiful. It deserves recognition.

6. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861)

A rather neglected figure among Victorian poets, Clough was highly esteemed during his day and enjoyed a close friendship with Matthew Arnold. I was first introduced to him through his Amours de Voyage, a novel in verse written in 1849 following Clough’s travels to Italy and him witnessing the revolution there. Clough’s style is surprisingly modern and rather un-showy but he communicates with great clarity and much of his work contains genuinely insightful comments.

He is also wonderfully quotable, from the (relatively) well-known “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive officiously to keep alive” to the less well-known “If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars”, and “Grace is given of god, but knowledge is bought in the market”. For me, he gets no better than Amours de Voyage, a work which deals with love, revolution, and religious doubt, and fears over the futility of endeavours in all three. It was reprinted by Persephone Books in 2009 and contains a preface by Julian Barnes (of whom more later) who makes the case for Clough far more eloquently than I am capable of doing.

7. Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Larkin is hardly a controversial choice to include on a list such as this, but as the poet closest to my heart, I couldn’t leave him out. His body of work is relatively small compared to many of his contemporaries but is superb and led to him being asked to assume the role of Poet Laureate in 1984 on the death of John Betjeman (he declined). For me, Larkin speaks to the heart of the human condition and has an excellent ear for a lucid turn of phrase.

He has often been labelled, somewhat unfairly, as miserable in his poems, racist, and misogynist. This rather misses the point of what his poetry achieves, and ignores much in there that is not so (in fact, Larkin is very rarely racist or misogynist, and probably no more so than others of a similar generation). A fairer way of characterising Larkin would be to say that he finds the beautiful in the everyday despite seeing that as a place of frequent unhappiness and loneliness. Rather than sing the praises of any particular poem of his, I’m simply going to present 5 that speak most strongly to me, and strongly recommend purchasing his collection The Whitsun Weddings. Enjoy!

  2. Ambulances
  3. Love Songs in Age
  4. Maiden Name
  5. Born Yesterday

8. Robert Westall (1929-1993)

Robert Westall is one of a handful of children’s authors who got me seriously into reading fiction. Among the others are Dick King Smith, David Clement-Davies, and William Horwood, all of whom I hold in high esteem, but Westall has extra significance for me. I grew up with my mother in the south of England but her family was all from the north, and consequently we spoke to them infrequently. I particularly felt this loss with my grandfather who was a very kind and very interesting man. Westall was born a year or so after my grandfather, and they grew up less than 10 miles away from each other; both were children during the Second World War. I never got much of an opportunity to talk to my grandfather about what that was like, but Westall’s war-time stories about childhood experiences in the war, drawing on his own history, gave me some insight into it.

The three I remember most vividly are The Machine Gunners (about a group of children who discover a machine gun and contribute to the war effort), Fathom Five (the sequel to The Machine Gunners), and The Kingdom by the Sea (about a boy and dog). They also gave me an early look into a more adult world, and were some of the first books I read to contain “bad language”. Do be warned on that front: I read these when I was about 7 or 8, and a year or two after that my mother recommended them to the parents of a school friend of mine. A few weeks later she was dealing with a rather cross mother regarding the books’ content!

9. Margaret Drabble (1939- )

Drabble has written 18 novels but is possibly (and unjustly) better known as the sister of A. S. Byatt. The two do not enjoy a particularly happy relationship, apparently due to Byatt’s objections to Drabble’s description of a tea set which Byatt had hoped to write about, and a disagreement over the appropriate way to depict their mother. Although I have read very little of Drabble’s fiction, she has proved significant to my reading. She is responsible for editing the 5th and 6th editions of one of the key reference books to which I would turn while reading English at university: The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

The 7th edition was released in 2009 under the editorship of Dinah Birch but for me this will always be Drabble’s, even to the point that among my fellow students we could refer simply to “the Drabble” and would know what was being discussed. Alongside Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Penguin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Drabble is responsible for helping me identify a good number of references that I otherwise would not have spotted. Last year she helped again and I was able to use her The Genius of Thomas Hardy while teaching Tess to my Year 13s.

10. Julian Barnes (1946- )

Barnes is probably my favourite modern writer and I am yet to find a book of his that I have not liked. While he enjoys a weighty reputation on my side of the Atlantic, my fiancée tells me he is relatively unknown outside niche (literate) circles in the US. He has performed well at the Booker too and consequently four of his books are on my list to review (I’ve read them but not written them up): Flaubert’s Parrot; England, England; Arthur & George; and the Booker-winning Sense of an Ending. Any would be a fine introduction to Barnes.

But there are two that do not appear on this list that I would urge people to read. A History of the World in 10½ Chapters lies somewhere in between a novel and a collection of short stories and is fascinating throughout, although nearly impossible to summarise. The ½ chapter, incidentally, includes a discussion of Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb, although the speaker makes the common mistake of misinterpreting the final line (“What will survive of us is love”) by taking it out of context. The Porcupine is a novella about the trial of a former dictator of a fictional communist state and is intriguing. Most recently, I read Barnes’s latest work, Levels of Life, which is variable, although its third part is stunning and intensely powerful. I am two books away from having read his entire body of fictional work and am yet to be disappointed.


What or who would be on your list?

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10 Responses to 10 Underrated Things I Love About English Literature

  1. Pingback: United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #4: Writers | O Pie-oneers!

  2. Steve says:

    Welcome to the party. I’ll need to have a coffee and a big comfy seat before I read this but am looking forward to it and thanks for the contribution!

  3. Steve says:

    Reblogged this on Steve Says… and commented:
    Another contributor to our “Why We Love Our Countries..” series.

  4. Pingback: United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #4 Writers… | Steve Says…

  5. Pingback: 10 Things I Love About My Country #4: Writers | Suzie81 Speaks

  6. Poetry Shark says:

    Marlowe is a good choice. My Wiley-Blackwell Renaissance Anthology suggests that if Shakespeare had died at 29, as Marlowe did, Shakespeare ‘would be a minor footnote in literary history’…whereas Marlowe is still read today.

    Also that photo of Larkin made me laugh.

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