Tuesday, September 11, 2012

And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be

I'm reading with great interest a short biographical dictionary of English literature (I believe it's called A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature -- http://archive.org/details/shortbiographica00cousuoft ) written in 1910, just before The Great War.  It's always worth remembering, and being reminded, how literary judgments evolve.  Tennyson is praised in terms we'd reserve for Shakespeare and maybe Milton.  Hawthorne is pronounced the greatest American author of imaginative literature and Melville dismissed in a couple sentences, the biographical lexicographer clearly of the opinion that Typee was his most important work.  Hardy and James and Yeats were still alive, so are not mentioned.  Everyone who knew of the existence of sex, and mentioned it, is downgraded for crudity.  (Of Tom Jones our author says, "All critics are agreed that the book contains passages offensive to delicacy, and some say to morality.")  (Alas, my delicacy was hopelessly offended a long time ago.  I think it was mortally wounded when I tried to read Shelley without smirking.  Of Shelley our biographer says that some of his shorter poems "reach perfection."  Of course he also says that Sir Walter Scott's work, whether considered for quantity or quality, is "marvellous," which, though I am an admirer, seems somewhat overstated.)  Emily D doesn't make the cut.  Our biographer likes Clemens/Twain more than you might expect, though not as much as Fenimore Cooper.

You might think of this book when next you gush -- or rail -- over the latest Idol of the In Crowd.

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