A History of English Literature

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the reading public eventually has the last word. Good writing, of whatever date,
remains contemporary.
‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ is a saying which recognizes that words have
the power to change minds. Rulers often mistrust writers. The Greek philosopher
Plato (c.429–347BC), a superb writer, in one of his books banned writers from the
ideal Republic, since they attach emotions to inferior things, and did not clear the
mind for truth. Elizabeth I’s government banned religion from the stage. The
Puritans kept the theatres closed for related reasons. John Milton, famed for his
liberal principles, accepted that bad books should be burned and their authors muti-
lated. He later acted as a censor for Cromwell. More oblique acknowledgement of
the status of literature came after 1968, when some critics in Paris claimed that crit-
ics were more important than writers. At the same time, some Californian students
were encouraged to reject ‘the Canon’ on the grounds that too many of the authors
of the best books were dead white European men.

What is literature?

What qualifies a piece of writing as literature? There is no agreed answer to this
question, but a working definition is put forward in the next paragraph. Dr Johnson
thought that if a work was read after a hundred years, it had stood the test of time.
Homer’s works are still fresh after twenty-seven centuries. Our access to them is
admittedly helped by favourable social, cultural and academic factors, yet a work
must have exceptional merit to outlive the context in which it appeared, however
close that relationship once was. The contexts supplied by scholars – literary, biog-
raphical and historical (not to mention theoretical) – differ from each other. A liter-
ary text is more vital,more real, takes us closer to the time of its composition, than
any scholar’s reconstruction of a context.
This is a history of a literature, not an introduction to literary studies, nor a
histor y of liter ary thought. It adopts as a simple rule this working definition: that the
merit of a piece of writing lies in its combination of literary art and human interest.
A work of high art which lacks human interest dies. For its human interest to last –
and inter ests change – the language of a work has to have memorable life, and its
form has to please. Admittedly, these qualities of language and form are easier to
recognize than to define. The ability to recognize it comes from reading widely, and
using comparison and historical imagination. No further definition of literature is
attempted. In practice, though literary canons have been attacked, knocked down
and rebuilt using some of the same components, they are not discarded. For the clas-
sics are the permanently vital parts of our literature.
In literary and cultural investigations, the question of literary quality can be post-
poned but not avoided. ‘Did you like it?’ and ‘Is it any good?’ are different questions.
There are orders of magnitude, hard though it may be to agree on cases. It would be
unfair, for example, to the quality of a writer such as Frances (‘Fanny’) Burney or
Mrs Gaskell or Penelope Fitzgerald to pretend that the work of Agatha Christie or
Enid Blyton had the same merit. It would be hard to maintain that the verse of Mrs
Felicia Hemans was as good as the poetry of Christina Rossetti. Comparison is
odious, but mediocrity is tedious. Without comparison, the outstanding writer, the
Julian of Norwich, the Jane Austen, might not get the billing, or the readers, they
deserve. Sir Walter Scott, Count Leo Tolstoy and Sir Salman Rushdie are all histori-
cal novelists, but they are not all of equal merit.


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