Earlier this year, I took a course on literature. This is not surprising, since I am a student of English literature — but for the first time in six years, I was reading works from across the length and breadth of literary history. This was a course that specialised on the Western literary canon, you see, and the professor had chosen works which he felt could represent the progress of literature throughout space and time. Two months on, the course still stays with me — not only because I practically brainwashed myself with readings, but also because it genuinely taught me to think about literature not as a static body of work, but as an ever-growing patchwork which continues to change and develop as time goes by. With that in mind, I decided to rank them: which of these, I wondered, was my favourite piece? And which of them didn’t so much as leave a dent in my thirst for (literary) knowledge? The results, as you shall see, were intriguing.
I should say that these reviews are not a criticism of my professor’s choices: in every course there will be works that I absolutely adore, and works that I loathe with a passion. (Of course, the number one on this list tipped the scales heavily, but that’s just a coincidence… maybe.) I simply thought that ranking these works would be a fun way to figure out what stuck with me in this course, and perhaps interact with literature in a whole new way. If you have any differing rankings, or are Professor Hamilton, feel free to leave comments below!
11. Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”
Said I aloud, “what art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me — no, not the taking off of the Ground… I have no Manner of use for thee.”
Throughout my academic career, I’ve taken courses on Shakespeare, Romanticism, and even the classics of Greek and Roman antiquity. But there is one time period I will never touch, and that’s Augustan literature: the likes of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Daniel Defoe have never seemed like anything but a bunch of pompous jerks flaunting knowledge in other people’s faces. Nowhere is this more evident than Robinson Crusoe: the bits you remember, of the titular character finding cannibals and a companion in Friday, are all quickly dispatched with, in favour of long and winding monologues where Crusoe just can’t seem to tell a story straight. Things that would sound exciting in any author’s hands just fall limply onto the desolate sands: he makes a shipwreck sound boring, for God’s sake. You might defend this novel by saying that the narrative form was still evolving at the time; I say thank God, then, for progress.
Woe to him who must
In terrible trial entrust his soul
To the embrace of the burning, banished from thought
Of charge or comfort!
Here it all begins. Here we find the murky origins of English literature as we know it, reaching out in a sing-song voice, out of the shadows of the Dark Ages and flitting freely through our minds. And perhaps that’s how it should be consumed: a fireside tale proclaimed in a cold, dark night, where the imagination is free to roam. But on paper, this tale does nothing for me, not the fight with Grendel or his mother, not the fearsome final clash against the dragon. There were diversions — dear God, were there so many diversions. Perhaps it’s not the poet’s fault: perhaps these diversions build a world, flesh out characters. And perhaps the translation I read was just exceptionally poor: whoever starts a tale with the word “attend”? Who knows, I might have liked it better if I’d read the Heaney translation. Fate is cruel — but then again, so is the experience of reading Beowulf.
9. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”
We could not understand, because we were too far and could not remember.
Perhaps it’s Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps it’s just the fact I’ve read it four times for three different courses. But I used to really, really hate Heart of Darkness, hate Conrad’s tendency to write a whole page when a paragraph would suffice, hate the way he would stop to reflect every three sentences — and that’s before you stop to consider the potentially racist depictions within this novel. Then I talked about it with my MPhil friends over lunch (as we are wont to do) and over time I came to respect Conrad’s pioneering way of portraying modern thought. After all, Marlow is a confused man, torn between admiration and abhorrence, totally lost as to how he can relate his strange and incomplete experience. I just wish the journey wasn’t that tortuous.
8. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
I felt bound to do as he requested. The less I understood of this farrago, the less I was in a position to judge of its importance.
This was hugely beloved by all the people in my ASL class, so this is probably my “hot take” of the list. For what it’s worth “Jekyll and Hyde” is perfectly serviceable: it delves into the duality of man with a skilful hand, and the final thrashes of despair are among some of the most potent lines I’ve ever read. But the menace that should have made this “shilling shocker” irresistible was just not there: like Utterson I remained detached, aloof, unable to appreciate the horror that was Edward Hyde. I first read an abridged version of this when I was in secondary school, and of course Stevenson’s monstrous creation has been featured in popular culture time and time again; perhaps that had something to do with my heightened expectations and subsequent deflation. It’s just not scary if the twist has been applied a thousand times before, and when Henry Jekyll bares his soul in the final chapter, it’s too little, too late.
7. Romantic poetry (Novalis, Shelley, Keats, Poe, Arany)
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.
Poetry is a tough sell at times. What Wordsworth called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is a really subjective thing, moving one person to tears, leaving another person cold. I’m sorry to say that that includes me — empathy through poetry has never really been my strong suit, and one or two of the texts (looking at you, Novalis) fall into pointless pontificating. But Shelley, Poe and Arany all come together quite well in this collection, and I can’t help but respect the Romantics’ reverence (or lack thereof) for science. As Shelley’s words upstairs shows, those who truly get the poems are rewarded, and rewarded deeply. I like that about a poem.
6. Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”
There was some misconceived suspicion of a story, and on the other side the sting of injustice.
I have very little to say about good old Oedipus Rex. Even though it was one of the first literary works I read as a student, I’ve never been able to get myself excited about the whole incest thing. Like “Jekyll and Hyde”, this play is a casualty of overexposure, and I couldn’t help feeling “jeez, just tell us they had sex” every three lines. You do feel some pity for Oedipus as he and the characters dance slowly but surely towards their tragic fate, and there’s no doubt that the climax is well-earned — how else would it have gotten into a course about the literary canon? But overall this play is my definition of “meh”. I got it over with and looked forward to whatever came after, only to discover that Beowulf awaited me the next week.
5. Amos Tutuola’s “The Palm-Wine Drinkard”
We had sold our death to somebody at the door for the sum of £70:18:6d and lent our fear to somebody at the door as well on interest of £3:10:0d per month, so we did not care about death and we did not fear again.
What IS the Western canon, anyway? This was a question that our professor tried to deconstruct in the course, and though we ended up simply drawing from white male authors for our examination of the literary canon, this Nigerian novel, the first of its kind, stood out. Not at first though: this came rather late in the course and by that time my brain was armed and ready to explode, and Tutuola’s way of playing fast and loose with the English language irritated me. But gradually the humour seeped through, and I began to laugh. Nothing followed the rules of logic or reason in the book, but that’s the beauty of The Palm-Wine Drinkard — from its title onwards, your expectations are flipped, and truly anything can happen.
4. J. M. Coetzee’s “Foe”
At first there is nothing. Then, if I can ignore the beating of my own heart, I begin to hear the faintest faraway roar… from his mouth, without a breath, issue the sounds of the island.
Derivative works usually aren’t good. By and large you’re taking what is essentially a used concept and milking it to its fullest, and sometimes that concept just can’t give anything anymore. But good Lord, did I find Foe to be a MUCH more exciting read than Robinson Crusoe. Maybe it’s the fresh twist, the change in protagonist and the deepened anguish that draws me in, but then that’d also neglect Coetzee’s delicate writing and examination of voice. Yes, it builds slowly, and that might put some people off, but Coetzee makes sure that it all adds up to a thoughtful reflection on the struggle to make yourself heard. I’m a writer myself (as I hope this list/blog/series makes clear) and the idea of “who tells a story” is so important to me: Coetzee’s way of slipping in and out of the layers of story, depicting life within and without, struck me far deeper than Defoe’s insipid account of island life ever could.
3. William Shakespeare’s “Henry V”
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot.
What can you say? It’s William Shakespeare. And sure, he has his flops every now and then (anyone ever read the entirety of Henry VI?) but this is not one of them. Some of his plays are content to sit around simmering until they explode in one huge climax; this one charges straight out of the gate, brimming with energy and righteous fury, and in doing so catapults itself into the higher echelons of this list. Balancing the comedy of rank soldiers with the pathos of war, there is not a moment where old Billy Shakes doesn’t enchant with his characters and his poetry. He keeps you entranced even when everyone’s speaking French, for God’s sake. It’s simply impossible to resist it, and you know it after the first page. I was very tempted to write this all in iambic pentameter.
2. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”
All started laughing at this lunacy
And streamed upstairs to gape and pry and poke
And treated all his sufferings as a joke
More precisely “The Miller’s Tale”, but we discussed The Canterbury Tales as a whole, so I’m commenting on the whole thing. And why should one not read the whole thing? It’s a wonderful piece of work, from the inversions of the social order to the stories themselves, all are filled with wondrous glee and surprisingly progressive morals that still resonate today (the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is truly one of my favourite pieces of literature). I said upstairs that earlier story forms tend to be less interesting; but that theory is just so damn shaky when it’s up against The Canterbury Tales. Also, because I am a twelve-year-old child, a story where someone tricks another person into kissing his arsehole and then being branded on the cheeks for his trouble will never cease to be hilarious.
1. T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep… tired… or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way first: Wilfred Owen also happened. On its own, “Dulce et Decorum est” is a wonderful poem. But I am going to ignore it. That is the consequence it must pay for daring to sit itself next to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, a poem that stands so tall that it towers over everything while still being absolutely awkward.
Where do I start? I love the startlingly intimate tone, the way Prufrock invites us into his life while simultaneously not knowing what to say. I love the way he slips those references from Hamlet and the Bible and Andrew Marvell into his work — not as a way of showing off his literary credentials, but as a refuge from his inability to express himself. The fantastical imagery that greets the reader, the grotesque vision of being pinned on a wall, these strike just as hard as the sound of the words flowing through Eliot and into our minds. (Seriously, it’s such a good poem to read out loud.)
But I think the reason I love it so much is because Prufrock is a reflection of me. Eliot was in his mid-twenties when he wrote that poem, and he wrote of the cowardice of crushes, the inability to decide what to do with your life, the confusions of living in a city surrounded by crowds and buildings staring blankly through you every moment of your waking life — and I relate to it, all of it, every single word of it. Prufrock struggles to speak his mind 99% of the time, and as an Asperger’s kid I can feel his pain, feel the anguish of inarticulacy coursing through me, a wound that heals and reopens with every thought I express. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” knows who I am, it knows what I want. It’s my favourite poem on Earth. Whither goeth Wilfred Owen?