Essential Knowledge: Part IX

A liberal education has always meant a deep knowledge of cultural history, which inevitably meant art and literature. Sadly, the humanities have taken a beating from the Cult-Marx crusaders in the last half century. Critical Theory and its various off-shoots have, as one would expect from the Germans, reduced art and literature to rubble. Just look at the state of poetry. It has been reduced to displays of childish vanity at scream sessions. You find more culturally enriching rhymes on a rest room wall.

The good news is it is easy to bypass the lunatics and go right to the primary texts, which are often available for a song as ebooks. The literary canon is enormous so we’ll focus on the English portion for now. A modern educated man in the English speaking world has to have a broad knowledge of English (and American) literature, but he should also be familiar with the great works of the West in general. There are good translations of the classics from every Western language so you can read Tolstoy without knowing Russian.

Working forward from the deep dark past, the first “great works” of the English literature are Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The language is a little difficult for the modern reader, but not impenetrable. Something more difficult, and often overlooked as a result, is William Langland’s Piers Plowman. The challenge here is threefold. One is the language and the other is the Christianity. It’s also a social satire so you need to know a little about the times, but that should be a motivation.

Then we come to Shakespeare The good news here is all of his works are free as the family no longer has the copyright. There are some smart people who think The Bard is a waste of time. The important themes from the important plays are so baked into the culture that there’s no point in reading them in the original. There’s some truth to that, but the people who say this usually had a first class education. It’s not like you’re going to lose IQ points by taking the time to read some of the great works of English literature.

That said, Shakespeare had some clunkers too. From the comedies, I’d recommend The Merchant of Venice, especially for the alt-right reader, A Midsummer Night’s DreamTaming of the Shrew and Winter’s Tale. From the histories, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII and Richard III should be enough. Then read all of the tragedies. You can probably skip Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. All, of these are available on video and it is a good idea to see an actual production, even if it is on video.

This is a good time to talk about poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets are worth reading as an excellent introduction of English verse. And no, reading poetry will not make you gay or Mexican. Similarly, John Donne is one of the giants of English poetry, but I never found his work all that interesting. Instead, I’d read Samuel Johnson’s discussion of Donne and other prominent poets. Finally, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is a must read and it is pretty good. If you like Game of Thrones you’ll like this.

In a previous one of these posts, I recommended Utopia by Thomas Moore. Another classic from this period is New Atlantis by Francis Bacon. I won’t say it is good, but it is short. There’s also The Isle of Pines, which is similar and considered the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. You can get all three in one book! Something better from this period is Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory. This was one of my favorites as a kid. The quest for the grail is one of the most influential themes in English literature.

The first work of fiction to be considered a novel is The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. It is a Christian allegory, which probably sounds awful, but the fact that it has never been out of print since the 17th century means it is worth reading. Also in the realm of Christian literature is Paradise Lost by John Milton. Everyone has their list of essential books that an educated man should read. Every one of those lists contains Milton, because it arguably defined the English speaking world’s relationship to Christianity.

Finally, to sew up this post on literature, and yes there will be several more, I’m going to suggest something a bit odd. Integral to the English speaking world’s culture is a relationship with nature. It turns up throughout English literature and in American classics like Huckleberry Finn. The Complete Angler by Isaac Walton is a book about fishing that holds up today, but it is also a book about the peaceful enjoyment of nature. Even if you are afraid of the outdoors, an appreciation of man’s relationship to nature is essential.

42 thoughts on “Essential Knowledge: Part IX

  1. The Canterbury Tales are hardly accessible if read in the original language but this retelling is a wonderful read:
    The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd ISBN-10: 0670021229

    Dan Kurt

    • Correct. For most readers, it is effectively in a foreign language. Still, this can be an advantage if someone is reasonably intelligent and has never gone far in their studies of any other language. Many editions in the original language that I’ve seen (cf. Norton Anthology) have glossaries/footnotes etc. which help a dedicated reader and allow one to have the joy of the experience of the original.

    • Try reading it aloud phonetically sometime. Some of it will still be impenetrable, but you’ll be surprised how much of it suddenly clicks.

      • I agree with this, but I it still require a higher level of effort. If your goals is to just become familiar with the subject, then maybe the modern translations are best.

        • i find writing from Fielding’s era tough sledding, so I can’t imagine how tough reading Chaucer would be! when you really want to wear the hair shirt, do you guys (who do read the source Chauce) read it in a period script? 😛

          • oh, and I would strongly strongly recommend visiting Canterbury. it is like going back in time, and that is without the aid of hallucinogenics. the original medieval town and walls are all intact.

          • Not only that, I wear period clothes and sit in sweltering heat drinking tainted water.

      • In college I took an Old English course. It turned out to be excellent. We went right into the written material, with a spelling guide and a modest dictionary written by the instructor. Compared to my experience with other languages, it is amazing how quickly one can learn to read Old English, and even pick up subtleties and nuances in the language.

        • I still have my green Olde English Grammar from college. It was an interesting course.

      • Exactly, and it’s why I would rather watch an accurately done movie of a Shakespeare play, preferably with subtitles, than read it. My ear is better than my eye. Plus I am a German speaker which seems to help a lot especially with the older ones, such as the Canterbury Tales.

  2. The Germans gave us some dumb ideas in the 20th century but they gave us most of the good ones before that (Kant, Goethe, and Nietzsche were more essential to Western man’s intellectual formation, I think, than anything going back to Greek antiquity). Also, even though the victors control the big publishing houses, it’s important to point out that, if you know where to look, you’ll see a conservative movement that was a robust and worthy reaction to Critical Theory’s stupidity around the same time (especially Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt).

    I like older English literature, but it goes flaccid in the 20th century (Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, etc); there’s something so defeatist and degenerate about the postwar English (can’t say I entirely blame them). France had Hugo, who was good; Zola is a turgid but useful historical fiction writer. A lot of amoral talented sleazebag homos came from France, like Gide and Genet. The best writers seemed to come from Russia; Dostoevsky has no equal anywhere; Ivan Bunin won the Nobel Prize a long time ago, and is mostly forgotten, but he’s the best short story writer ever, I believe.

    Taste obviously plays a larger part. I had to stop reading Bruce Charlton a while back because he wouldn’t shut up about Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis. I like my fantasy tougher (Robert E. Howard’s skull-crackers like Conan and Solomon Kane).

  3. One recommendation is to pair Shakespeare’s history plays with readings in English history of the same era. Had the privilege of taking my British history sequences under the late Lacey Baldwin Smith and this was a technique that he used very effectively.

    • This is an excellent point. I alluded to it with the mention of Piers Plowman. It’s not only a good way to appreciate literature, but it helps you appreciate history.

  4. I’m going to admit to hating poetry and that most of what I know about all of the above is from reading about it rather than reading it.
    I agree with watching the Shakespeare videos. Watching a performance provides insight to the meaning of some of the dialog that might have to be explained in a footnote that, depending on the edition you get, might not be there.
    Bunyan up until when I was young, was the second most published book in the world after the Bible itself.
    An abridged version of Plowman is fine for getting the gist of how many regular folk saw the state of things in that age. If you come across a Medieval reader of some sort one will be in there.

    • I have some hostility to poetry as well. Hatred of poetry is an American thing. Every Brit I’ve known has had a fondness for it. Same with the Irish. I think the North American fondness for practicality is the issue. Poetry is frivolous.

      I agree with Shakespeare’s plays. It is best to see them. I’m not a fan of the theater, but see a decent performance of Shakespeare is fun and it is easier to follow along. These plays were written to be performed in front of real people.

      • My 10 cents is to recommend something published by the NYT of all things, but back in 1936, “The Best Loved Poems of the American People” which you can pick up for a couple bucks. It’s an anthology of the most requested poems as compiled by the NYT back when people would write to the editor of a paper to ask for literary information. Thus, it is not anthology of what the critics say is the best, but what the people actually liked.

        Casabianca, I am a stranger in the land/where my forefathers trod, Finnegans wake and the cremation of Sam McGee, Yukon Jake, hell in Texas, Carmen possum, overworked elocutionist, the ride of Paul revere, the touch of the masters hand, the years at the spring, Flanders fields, O Captain, would I shrivel, derelict (15 men on a dead man’s chest, yohoho and a bottle of rum), Invictus.

      • i don’t like poetry for the same reason i don’t like opera — they aren’t one thing or the other. poetry is an attempt to make a kind of musical text. really more of a kind of word game, than serious writing. just the kind of thing homos would promote.

        • That’s very perceptive. I’ve read some poetry and seen some opera because I felt like I was supposed to get something it of it but I hate both. A complete waste of time. How anyone can be amused at all by this stuff defeats me. Maybe I’m just a peasant but I don’t care for it.

      • Yeah, better to see the plays than read them, but seeing them is better after you have read them. His puns and repartee come at you so fast, it’s better to be prepared somewhat.

        Oh – and the modernization of his plays. Don’t.

        Sorry. Won’t inflict my ignorance upon you any further.

  5. I’ll just put a good word in for Alexander Pope. Though, of course, opinions . . .

    • Funny. I just read Johnson’s Life of Pope in his Lives of the Poets. Didn’t know until then he and Swift were good friends.

  6. I guess, by your (and I’m sure most people’s) estimation that I am doomed to remain ignorant. I can’t read more than half the material you deem “essential”. Mainly because I do not find it to be essential, or worth the time. I read other material as my interest wanders. For instance, all of Bill’s plays, none of his sonnets. I have read a lot of scientific literature on things related to my career, and a lot that related to my career in only the vaguest way.

    If that makes me ignorant by someone else’s standards, so be it. Neither upsets me or intimidates me.

  7. Seems like the revisionists from Marx to the Frankfurt school and the agenda of revised history in whole has turned the classical critical theory on its head. They managed to infect even that classical basis of examining the truth.
    So that pretty much leaves the agrarian related sciences and philosophies as the only bulwark against all revisionism, because the agrarian is so closely related to nature and the personal experience and enlightenment derived from that relationship, unless you never raised a garden, or involved in provincial animal husbandry, a trade in contact with nature, or just live in the rural enclaves, that Frankfurt revised critical theory catches you out and your as ignorant of the classical theory as a new born babe.

    I always felt somehow Tolken’s works made that agrarian/nature connection with the natural world as the basis of good verses evil an integral component of his stories.

    I think too, works like Gary North’s Political Polytheism, how the marxists/Fabians removed God and the Scriptures from government as a way to rid America at least of it’s scruples and moral compass, and by doing so seeding everything with revisionism most and certainly the weaker willed, eliminated the most symbolic references to traditions and principles of Christian Western culture long held and dearly won.

    In a way, it is not enough to understand revisionism, who and what created it, but to understand the roots of why so many worked at it, how could so many partake in such an evil deliberate crime? What thing in common drove these men to commit such a sin on western humanity. What possessed and drove them?
    Obviously these men where pretty smart to begin with to create the revisionism to create the revisionism so to speak. Where they possessed with some sadistic mania, was it like a drug to them, how did so many become drawn together at such a juncture in time?
    certainly nothing good has come of any of it but the power elites and the long train of marxist dictators. It certainly led to the liquidation of hundreds of millions of people.
    What are the roots of such an evil?
    What are the clues? I’d like to understand.
    It seems ut is the key to so much today.

  8. Wonderful post. The Compleat Angler should be some pleasant weekend reading.

    Titus Andronicus is worth skimming if only to see that even geniuses have their off moments. It’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 level stuff.

  9. For those who enjoy Shakespearean drama but would like to branch out from the Bard, let me recommend Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford – a most “interesting” retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

  10. “The important themes from the important plays are so baked into the culture that there’s no point in reading them in the original.”
    Couldn’t disagree more. Too much lost to “comfortable”, or incompetent transposition/ translation.
    Frankly, I can’t see today’s “liberal arts” as anything but an exercise in
    “Gentleman’s C ” credentials without a firm foundation in Aesop’s Fables.
    Of COURSE i can’t read them in the original. It’s all Greek to me!

  11. To me, poetry is an anachronism. Like opera. It was great at one time, but it requires a love of language that few people possess today. Plus, the deconstructionism of language a la Orwell, makes poetry a luxury that few people indulge in. And since there are no true great poets today, it seems like a bygone relic.

  12. I suggest The Cloud of Unknowing as an essential pre-Shakespearean masterpiece?

  13. If you pick up schoolbook from the 1870’s like a Appleton’sr or a McGuffey Reader you’ll see a goodly portion is devoted to the works of welll known English and American poets and writers. The prose is just beautiful.

    It was clear that poetry was considered essential for a student’s education and making him fit for society.

    The thing that amazed me going through Appleton’s and McGuffey’s was that the stories, poetry would be today considered appropriate for a college level English course. The material is certainly not simplified.

    Both can be picked up for a reasonable price at Amazon. And any parent ought to at least pick up a McGuffey and compare it to what their children are learning. And either makes for a nice introduction to English literature.

  14. Zman. You continue to rock & roll man! Great stuff. And many thanks.

    One thought that occurred to me as I was thinking about your “Essential Knowledge” Series. It seems to me that “essential” to reversing the damage from the Academia Leftist to the minds of our young folks, is to capture both the essence of freedom and it’s development, and the evil that is in direct opposition to it, what we fight every day.

    A compendium of those American jewels like the Founding documents, to De Tocqueville, and many others on both politics, economics and history. Maybe there is already some overlap with what you have already provided, I just haven’t gone back to check. On the left, there is the Marx, Gramsci, Alinsky tripe, along with Cloward-Piven, the Communist Manifesto, the USCPA Goals on Record from the 1960’s, and more.

    And of course, those writings and resources that are fictitious but notable in and of themselves. Things like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, C.S. Lewis, and others that depict the unchanging essence of human nature and the blessings of God our Creator.

    I know your audience and regular commenters are familiar with much of this already but as I continue to think about the growth of your site and the new readership, exposing others to these things which is sorely lacking in the mainstream, would, in my estimation, be a great service to the public.

  15. And a nice book that recapitulates and shouts out to a lot of the great western works in its own Pilgrim’s Progress is Silverlock by John Myers Myers.

Comments are closed.