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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: Classics of English Literature

In my continuing effort to fill in gaps in my education, I picked the great courses program Classics of English Literature as my next listen. It turned out to be a great listen, and a great survey work of English literature. The emphasis, the lecturer points out isn't "literature in English", but English literature, so American literature is explicitly excluded.

Starting from Chaucer and Shakespeare, and then with lesser known older works by Samuel Johnson (even with a detour through the King James edition of the Bible), the lecturer, John Sutherland evokes the grand landscape of English literature and culture and how it's reflected in English literature. As part of all that, we get biographies of the great authors, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Austen, the Bronte sisters, E.M. Foster. Wow. All of those biographies were short, context-setting, and stuff I'd never known, not even from say, my visit to Wordsworth's Dove Cottage. We also got a good look at the war poets like Owens and Sassoon. We got multiple views of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". Even H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle were included as the representatives of genre literature. We get a detailed examination of the rise of the novel, and its commercial requirements, as well as the obligatory examinations of Charles Dickens. Just about the only English literature not touched by Sutherland was of course, the work of the Inklings (Tolkein, Lewis, etc).

The series of lectures even covers why there were no great English plays in the 19th century ("a black hole"). It turns out during that time, all plays had to be approved by the royal chamberlain, which led to a censorship and thereby English theater didn't participate in the grappling of ideas.

Sutherland's enthusiasm about the great works of English literature is infectious (though I'm still not ready to tackle Middlemarch or Wuthering Heights), and intriguing enough. It's also a nice change from the heavy technical reads and listens that I've been otherwise reviewing here on this blog. Recommended.

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