What Counts as an Old Book? A Response by Dale Nelson

This is a response to “What Counts as a Classic? A Conversation with C. S. Lewis and Goodreads,” a blog post I wrote on 18 Dec. 2018 centred on images like the one above. There was quite a conversation that followed, and I thought it was worth a more visible space than the convo footnotes of a dated post. Dale Nelson, who has recently retired as a literature professor and has written about literature his whole life, provides some thoughts about old books and the literary canon. This reads like–and I think is, indeed–a manifesto of sorts, and if followed would be a revolution of thinking and learning. Unfortunately, perhaps, it is a revolution that few could pull off, though worth giving a try.

While I agree with Dale that his curriculum is enriching and important–I have endeavoured to do it myself over a decade or so of reading–I completely disagree with his position that it should be the standard of any undergrad English lit degree. On the issue of “the canon”–which I have written on before (see here and here)–I largely agree with John Guillory in Cultural Capital, though parts of that make me terribly uncomfortable. Discomfort, though, is a good learning tool. Since I simply don’t have time in my life-space to defend my point of view, I didn’t want to hold anyone else back. Dale forcefully gives the counterpoint and has the goods to argue it. I hope you can be enriched by the debate here!

Key ideas in the piece below are these:

To identify a person as “learned” is, historically understood, not a compliment, but a description. It refers to a person who knows Classical Greek and Latin well and their literatures, and is conversant with modern European languages and their classic works as well.

The term “learned” implied that such learning was a worthy human endeavor for its own sake.

The universities have, it seems, shed this sense of learning, in that they have abandoned the Classical languages except for specialists, and tend not to perceive humane learning as a great good in itself. How learnedness is to survive and thrive without steady and serious commitment from the universities is unclear.

Sir Roger Scruton comments:

“The old way of teaching the humanities was as objects of love. This is what I have loved. This is what previous generations have loved who handed it on to me. Here. Try it out and you will love it too. Whereas the postmodern curriculum is a curriculum of hatred. It’s directed against our cultural inheritance.”

C. S. Lewis was an exemplary scholar and a late embodiment of the learned life.  This affected even his understanding of Christian flourishing.

1. Lewis’s “On the Reading of Old Books” is addressed to individual readers and to Christian small study groups.  Lewis urges them to include generous quantities of older works in their reading regimen and argues for why they should do this.  With the exception of his old favorite MacDonald, all of Lewis’s examples date to before the “watershed” period of approximately 1820 that Lewis identified in his discussion of literary periods, “De Descriptione Temporum.”  In writers as different as Boethius, Boehme, and Hooker we will find a common mere Christianity.

2. It is easy to compile a mental or actual list of such books or authors [a] from what Lewis himself lists in “On the Reading of Old Books” and [b] from other sources, such as the bibliography in Thomas Oden’s After Modernity…What?, the Eighth Day Books catalog, Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers (which I warmly recommend), etc.  Such works have never been so easy to get hold of as they are now.  In fact, thousands of pages of patristic literature and later writings may be read online for free.  So what are we waiting for?  But the thing isn’t to make impressive lists (like Emma Woodhouse) and not read the works. See here: https://www.ccel.org/fathers.html

3. A truly learned Western person has at least some reading and writing ability in Latin and Greek.  I, personally, don’t measure up to this criterion, but I’m sure it is true.  (I would accept that someone immersed in Chinese literature but ignorant of Latin and Greek could be a truly learned person.  I’m thinking of Gi-ming Shien as an example.  See Damascene Christensen’s biography of Seraphim Rose, specifically the early chapter called “Two Teachers.”)  I haven’t been able to locate it, but I recall a remark of Lewis’s to the effect that he would give up almost anything before he’d give up his knowledge of Latin and/or Greek.

4. A serious student of literature should be able to read modern French, Italian, and German. This seems too much to expect, now. It wasn’t in Lewis’s day.  Today we tend to depend on (a constant stream of new) translations of classic works in these languages.  I accept that by this criterion I’m not a serious student of literature.  Some students will be able to CLEP out of this requirement.  (I refer to the College-Level Examination Program, which those interested can look into.)

5. Lewis contended, convincingly, that the English literature student who does not know Old English/Anglo-Saxon is forever an amateur as compared to the student who does know it. I’m forever an amateur. I am sure he would have assumed the student would become conversant with some Middle English dialects (at least Chaucer’s southern ME, the Gawain-poet’s northern ME).

6. For someone who is going to be a secondary school/high school teacher of English, the rigors in nos. 3-5 above may be relaxed, but there should be at least a degree of acquaintance with these things.  I would suggest: [a] knowledge of Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, derived from good translations, with at least some sense of their later influence upon the Middle Ages and Renaissance, etc.; [b] some experience of Old English, centered on Beowulf, the Dream of the Rood, etc., although these will have to be read mostly in translation; [c] considerable experience with reading Chaucer (Middle English) in a glossed text with lightly modernized spelling, such as John H. Fisher’s edition, although the student may read the Gawain poet in a modern version; [d] the prospective high school teacher should have at least a year’s work on the university level (or the equivalent) in one of the modern European languages, to the extent that he or she can read modern authors (here defined as, say, >1700) with some helps.

7. The canon absolutely must be the focus of the undergraduate curriculum in English.  Modern English literature may be considered to begin with Sir Thomas Malory (written ca 1470, published by Caxton ca 1485), who, with occasional help for vocabulary (footnotes), can be read usually without aids.  The terminus ad quem may accommodate Joyce, Pound, Yeats &c.  The canon of English literature must include generous selections from the Authorised/King James Version of the Bible: I would say, offhand, Genesis, Exodus, selections from Joshua and Judges, the material about Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon in the books of Kings and Chronicles, some of the Psalms and Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Jonah, selections from Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations, and Daniel for the OT, and one of the Synoptic Gospels and St. John’s, and portions at least of Revelation, for the NT.  Even students from Christian homes are profoundly ignorant of the Bible, and, if they have read in their Bibles, probably did not use the AV/KJV.

Typically, works should be read in their entirety; authors didn’t write their long poems, plays, and novels to be filleted by distant editors and served up to impart to students a bogus sense of “knowing” these authors and works.  With the present, common approach – having the students read various excerpts in anthologies – you get editorial priorities and biases.  The first example that comes to my mind was the representation, in a Norton Anthology 15 years or so ago, of Sir Walter Scott’s prose fiction by a short story or novella and the first chapter of one of his novels.  Now I think that, as a rule of thumb, the first chapter of a Scott novel may be skipped except by the scholarly and the conscientious.  Anyone relying on the Norton for this very important author was likely to come away with a false impression.  No; the student ought to read The Heart of Midlothian or Old Mortality or The Bride of Lammermoor, etc.

8. The canon must be the focus of the undergraduate curriculum for several reasons.  Among these: [a] Students arrive at university having read less and less canonical literature.  Barring a serious reform of secondary education, this will probably only get worse, as today’s increasingly ignorant teacher education graduates get jobs.  The undergraduate who majors in English, then, is, in fact, at a remedial level.  There is an awful lot to make up; for many people, it will be made up only when they are undergraduates, if it is made up at all.  [b] There has to be some appreciable passage of time during which a work has demonstrated its value to good readers.  Good readers are described in Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. Someone who reads only the literature of his or her own time is almost certainly not a good reader, in Lewis’s sense.  The canon is fluid at the edges, yes.  Elizabeth Gaskell is, I hope, now recognized as a canonical author as she perhaps was not in 1950.  But the notion that the canon needs to accommodate your favorite living authors is counter to the idea of the canon.

[c] The traditional sense of the canon is a valuable resource against pressure from the Right and from the Left, both of which see literary studies in utilitarian terms.  The Right sees literary studies as providing a mental discipline that will help graduates to succeed in the workplace, e.g. as writers and speakers communicating with clients, customers, etc.  The Left sees literary studies as a means of effecting “progressive” social changes and the inner dispositions needed to make people commit themselves to those causes.  Both Right and Left may also see literary studies as helping people to “understand themselves.”  That may be a good, but it is, strictly speaking, an incidental one, in this context.  The canon represents belief in the study of literature as a worthy human activity in its own right, the disciplined, ongoing attention to works of proven excellence and importance for the imagination, etc.  [d] The student will not be able to benefit much from Theory unless he or she is well read in the canon.  Without that firsthand knowledge, the student is unprepared to benefit from theoretical writings if they are actually good, and ill-equipped to detect the distortions and errors with which they are infected when they are not good.  If Theory is prized, then it should seem all the more certain, to its advocates, that it needs and deserves the attention of well-read people rather than people possessing only vague, sketchy, partial knowledge of the works with which Theory is supposedly concerned.  (I myself am doubtful of the value of much Theory.  Its advocates say it provides critical lenses.  I wonder if, often, a better metaphor is to say that Theory is often like urban light pollution, an unhealthy fog that obstructs vision of the stars.)

9. To say that students should be occupied with the canon in their curricula doesn’t mean they can’t read anything else, either on their own time or in groups, or in occasional elective courses.  The canon is primarily a matter of INCLUSION, that is, the making sure that a student’s time in university includes focus on standard rather than peripheral or popular current works that give back to their readers what’s already widely on offer in television, movies, politics, etc.  The canon is necessary to the integrity of literary studies.

10. What about non-Western literature?  I don’t think there is time for much required study thereof, for university English undergraduates.  However, it might be that a semester or two of such study should be strongly encouraged.  Such coursework should emphasize canonical works in translation, i.e. Confucius’s Analects, the Dhammapada, abridged versions of the Mahabharata (including core material from the Bhagavad-Gita) and the Ramayana, the Tao te Ching, etc. and later literary classics such as Wu Ch’Eng-En’s Journey to the East (I recommend Arthur Waley’s abridged retelling, Monkey), Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, etc., rather than current works.

11. What works are we talking about when we refer to “the literary canon,” or to which authors do we refer when I mention “standard authors”?

There’s no one authoritative list of “the canon” – and so the very term is probably not a good one, since canon implies a definitive list by which other writings may be measured.  In Christendom, there are three canonical lists of Scripture, the shortest being the familiar Protestant one of 66 books, the Roman Catholic being a bit longer, and the Eastern Orthodox a bit longer still.  Never the less, “the canon” is widely used by people who mean basically the same thing even if they oppose emphasis on the canon (e.g. because most of the works, in English literature, are by white men).

A list of standard works originates in the belief that (1) there is an identifiable body of classic works and that (2) professors should be fair to students and tell them what works and authors they are responsible for, as regards testing for degrees.

Some years ago, W. C. Dowling recreated the list of works that a student (at Rutgers or Cornell, I’m not sure which) graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English should have read prior to taking three days of comprehensive examinations at the end of the senior year.  I suppose hardly anyone taking a Ph.D. in English will have read all of these now.  Dowling’s list provides a reasonable idea of what “canonical works” in English might mean.  (I may be able to scan the list.)

Dowling’s list could have been a list C. S. Lewis would have recommended for students about to start studies in English at Oxford.  Here’s another list from CSL.  This is from a letter to J.O. Reed, 8 July 1947.  Lewis advised:

“The important thing before coming up [to Oxford] is not a ‘course’ but as much reading and book-buying as you can possibly afford without getting tired or bankrupt.  Anything between 1400 and 1830 is grist to your mill, and now is the time for any of the long authors: Chaucer, Malory, Sidney, Spenser, Marlow, Shakespeare, B. Johnson [I think he means Ben Jonson], Thos. Browne, Burton, Walton, Donne, Bunyan, Dryden, Addison, Pope, Swift, Thomson, Richardson, Fielding, Johnson, Boswell, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Jane Austen, Lamb, Hazlitt, de Quincey.”

So there’s 30 authors, to which one may add Sir Walter Scott.  Note that these are “long” authors—authors who wrote long things or who wrote a lot that you should read, I take it– and so no George Herbert, Blake, etc.  Omission of Milton has to be just an oversight.

I would suggest that, for English faculty, a list like Dowling’s might be a good starting point for establishing what students should be expected to have read by the end of their four years.  Of course I don’t suppose that any university in the country, except maybe the University of Chicago, would require such an impressive list.  But it would be good to start with something like this.  Then: let the discussion begin – what are we going to cut, and why?

It will still be found that, however much is cut from the list, a good English curriculum will require so many works that time will not be available for a lot of current authors, theories, etc.  If someone says, “Oh, but the students must get a grounding in Lacan,” then I would say: “Fine.  What are you going to cut from the Dowling list to make room for Lacan?”  Someone else says, “The students have to study postcolonial theory.”  I respond: “What further cuts shall be made?”  And so on.  Is it really better that students should be conversant with (indoctrinated in?) the various forms of Theory that are liked by their professors, than that they should read deeply in British literature, being able accurately to construe poems and prose passages from various periods, and (one hopes) loving much of what they read?  Many people will object that the curriculum I advocate lacks enough work by women and authors supposed to be representative of various minority constituencies.  I’d say that a serious English program focuses on the literary works we have, not what we “should” have in order to make missionaries for progressive politics happy.  Before the present fad of identity politics, women and members of minority ethnicities found these works meaningful to them.  Electives and voluntary associations may delve into recent literary works by women and minority group members.

12. Students will need a year of British history, but that is something some of them will be able to CLEP out of.

13. There would be time for more of the serious study indicated above if requirements in other subjects were reduced.  I’m thinking particularly of Education courses for the teaching majors, which, notoriously, lack rigor, but other reductions could be made, too.

Yes, of course I realize that the reforms implied above aren’t likely to come about.  As C. S. Lewis said, in another context, “The establishment must die and rot.”

Dale Nelson

Dr. W. C. Dowling’s list of standard British and American literary works that undergraduates should study, and should be prepared to write about during three days of comprehensive exams, may be found here:
This will give interested persons some idea of what the “standard works” or “canonical authors” in Anglophone literature are (or were).

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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35 Responses to What Counts as an Old Book? A Response by Dale Nelson

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Sounds good to me! Though, indeed, what did Lewis mean by “long”? Including long works – like The Canterbury Tales or The Faerie Queene or The Prelude? Or was he thinking of each author’s corpus of works? (!) – or a great swathe of it? In my day, in my experience, selections were made – though, indeed, of whole works, where applicable (one can select assorted lyrics, or sermons for that matter, more easily than chapters of a novel or scenes of a play). Also periodization and genre were often employed – as was a combination of course requirements for a major and electives. This included (in my experience) distinct courses on literary criticism – and could include Theory as distinct, and a combination of requirements and electives (e.g., with Intro and Advanced courses). Literature in translation is another question – which the Bible and Plato and Aristotle would be – as would, say, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace: again, a combination of requirements and electives would be possible.

    How, if you happen to know more about it than I, does this compare with Great Books teaching (as at St. John’s, Annapolis) where (if I am not mistaken) there is a wide but selective variety of works known in common in translation (e.g., one does not read St. Augustine and Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius in Latin – though perhaps one might if one could)?


  2. Dorothea says:

    this is an interesting proposition and I quite liked what Dale Nelson said about the Right and Left and their choices for the Canon. But I agree with you with the general sentiment of this being the standard of an undergraduate degree (but maybe also, because I would have totally failed to meet this standard). As a life-student of English lit, though, it’s not a bad idea.


  3. Forgive my ignorance here but Lewis says “Anything between 1400 and 1830 is grist to your mill,” because he has read it all and most other work around, he is therefore qualified to propose a measurement. Do you or any of your readers know if there are any other authors or academics, as qualified as Lewis out there, that are proposing a different measurement?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Re. your first point – and Dale’s point 1 below – that range may have reference to what was characteristic of the Oxford English curriculum and final examinations, then. Lewis’s first published book of essays, REHABILITATIONS and other essays (1939), is worth seeing with respect to this – the essays “The idea of an ‘English School’” and “Our English syllabus”. I’ve read an account of Lewis and Tolkien’s involvement in trying to establish the date-range of the Oxford English curriculum – including the idea that students would not need much help with things from after 1830 and could be left to read them for themselves (if I am not oversimplifying grotesquely) – but am not sure where I’ve read it – maybe a couple accounts – In Carpenter’s Tolkien biography and his Inklings? – and in Lewis biographies (Hooper and Green?)?

      Re, your second point, beyond Dale’s Dowling list, I don’t know who or what to suggest. I should add, however, that the discussions about the Oxford English curriculum were lively and heated ones – with other well-read Oxford scholars having very different opinions from Lewis and Tolkien.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. dalejamesnelson says:

    Here is a link to the reading list posted by retired professor W. C. Dowling that I mentioned in my piece above.

    Click to access complist.pdf

    This is probably a list of British and American literary works that 1960s Rutgers undergraduates in English studied and on which they needed to be prepared to write during three days of comprehensive exams.

    The Dowling list will give a decent idea of what the “standard authors” or the “canon” of British and American literature might mean.

    A few observations about it.

    1.I wish we could compare this curriculum to that which was studied by Oxford undergraduates in Lewis’s day. I suppose that the Oxford curriculum would contain more British works and fewer American ones, and that Oxford undergaduates were expected to possess foreign language ability that Rutgers undergrads weren’t.

    Obviously the Dowling list is too much to ask of some students who major in English now, and English departments worry about further enrollment losses. Inevitably, very few English faculties, if any, would consider, even for a moment, using the list. But it does provide an actual historical standard of what an English degree at a well-regarded university meant within living memory. It -was- doable for most of the students then admitted.

    2.Dowling’s list is for seniors. It was believed that it was reasonable to expect students majoring in English to read these works and to possess some grasp of them by that point in their careers. I believe that English programs should still stand for something like this. However —

    3.In my own experience, as a student finishing an -MA- — not a BA — in English, at the University of Illinois in 1985, the list was similar to this but, I think, a bit less rigorous. I recall two days of comps exams, not three. The trend was towards easing requirements.

    4.My hunch is that -now-, many people getting Ph.D.s in English will not have read as much in canonical works as the Rutgers seniors had. Today’s Ph.D. will, instead, have read a great deal of literary theory, in the practice of which he or she will have been expected to demonstrate some expertise. That theory will be pretty exclusively leftist, such that the student sees any given literary work that he or she does read through “critical lenses” that amount to this: Think Like A Leftist Academic. Whatever benefits may accrue from this, I doubt that they outweigh the loss incurred by the deprivation of wide and deep reading in canonical works. The current Ph.D. student will probably have watched various movies, TV shows, &c as part of his or her studies. Better to drop King Lear and watch Reservoir Dogs?

    5.Underlying the fashion for Theory was the intense desire of some that others should feel seriously guilty for the doings of white men. There’s been a lot of tendentious writing designed to inculcate that guilt (e.g. Edward Said’s), but I would say, even if the dead white males were guilty and even if some people inherit unjust privileges from them, that even -deserved- guilt is not a -literary- good, just as, arguably, something like national pride is not a -literary- good. The literary imagination has its own criteria of excellence, which are best absorbed by the patient and happy absorption of literary works (with such aids as are needed to understand them well).*

    6.So what I see today is (a) the reading of fewer and fewer standard works, combined with (b) the reading of more and more that isn’t really literary in its purposes, for the sake of (c) attitudes that are, strictly speaking, not literary, with (d) a consequent diminishment of potential literary experience.

    Dale Nelson

    *C. S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism: The value of criticism is “to multiply, safeguard, or prolong those moments when a good reader is reading well a good book and the value of literature those exists -in actu.-

    “This drives me to a question which I never asked myself until a few years ago” — the value of various types of criticism.

    Most useful, Lewis finds, are the dry editors who give a reliable text, accurate and non-anachronistic lexical notes, etc. “Find out what the author actually wrote and what the hard words meant and what the allusions were to, and you have done far more for me than a hundred new interpretations or assessments could ever do” (p. 121). [The “hard words” might be familiar words like “wit” and “nature” whose meaning has changed.]

    Second most useful are the “literary historians” who tell you what is there [as Lewis did in his OHEL volume]. These critics put literary works “in their setting; thus showing me what demands they were meant to satisfy, what furniture they presupposed in the minds of their readers,” etc. [Lewis’s own Discarded Image would be an example, or Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture. For me, S. L. Bethell’s Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition — a work esteemed by Lewis, is a superlative example.]

    Third most useful — the critics who infect you with their enthusiasms when you are young.

    Then what of the great critics like Coleridge &c.? Lewis says that we need the authors in order to enjoy these critics more than we need the critics to enjoy the authors.

    But that is just what, as I believe, is not happening in English programs, where the students will be reading Theory and criticism of works that in frequent cases -they have not even read- for themselves. Surely this is a bad state of things. And surely the students — at the least, the undergrads — should read “the authors” (cf. Dowling) first — in depth — and not the critics and Theorists, except incidentally and maybe in one course. Those “authors” have proven their capacity to appeal to men and women, people of differing ethnicities, people of differing generations already. And, as Lewis noted in “On the Reading of Old Books,” the “authors” are more likely to be understandable and delightful than the academics. When I was a teacher, I regarded myself as needing to quicken or intensify the students’ love of literary works, if possible, not be talking about -my- feelings about them, but by getting them to read them and providing aids to help them understand what they read — but, NB, I didn’t think they necessarily needed to understand “everything,” e.g. all the contemporary allusions in The Faerie Queene. I thought my job was largely to help the student and the work to get acquainted… and to hope a friendship would develop.

    See Lewis pp. 86-87, pp. 119ff.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ” I thought my job was largely to help the student and the work to get acquainted… and to hope a friendship would develop.” Well said – and thought!

    Whatever the “Public Library of India” is, they have a scan of S. L. Bethell’s Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in the Internet Archive (a book I’ve never read – thanks for your, and Lewis’s (which I don’t recall), recommendations!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • dalejamesnelson says:

      From one of my Jack and the Bookshelf columns for the New York C. S. Lewis Society:

      Lewis’s July 1947 letter to J. O. Reed recommends “[o]n Shakespeare E. K. Chambers, Stoll, Caroline Spurgeon, and Bethell”….

      Stoll, Spurgeon, and Bethell, with R. W. Chambers,* have in common a focus on Shakespeare’s plays as imaginative constructions of lasting value that work on us from within the theatrical and poetic conventions of their time. They avoid reading Shakespeare as if he were Ibsen; they avoid elaborate inferences about the psychologies and backgrounds of the characters. And they don’t go in for speculation about Shakespeare the man.

      S. L. Bethell’s Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition might be the book to which the curious should turn first. The author reminds us that the Elizabethan stage was not the picture-frame affair we are accustomed to. Rather, theatres such as the Globe permitted audiences to see the actors from every direction, in broad daylight, with minimal “scenery,” permitting attention to the essentially real rather than to a superficial “realism” that is intended to lead spectators to forget they are watching a play. The subtleties in Elizabethan drama belong to a “highly complex poetry,” rather than to elusive states of mind to be inferred from clues. A naturalistic performance style will, then, conflict with Shakespeare’s words. Psychology there is, to be sure, but it is presented economically and conventionally, as when, for example, a character partly tells his own story: when Othello says he is “rude in speech” we are to take this straightforwardly; the eloquence of his speeches is that of the poem rather than the character. …

      Lewis regarded Bethell as one of “our allies” against tiresome critical “bilge.”

      Dale Nelson

      Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        *E. K. Chambers must not be confused with R. W. Chambers. E. K. Chambers prepared a monumental two-volume compilation of records of Shakespeare’s life (1930), a four-volume study of Elizabethan theatre (1923), etc. This “Bookshelf” entry doesn’t presume to comment on them. E. K. Chambers was the son of a Berkshire curate. R. W. Chambers was born in Yorkshire, the son of a commercial traveler; his scholarly work was mostly concerned with Old or Middle English literary works, such as Beowulf, Piers Plowman, etc., although he had a particular interest in St. Thomas More.



        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          He is also responsible for The Mediaeval Stage in two volumes (another good companion to Bethell?), Arthur of Britain, The Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (a complement to your suggested reading?), an edition of Henry Vaughan’s poetry (in two volumes), and one of the volumes in the Oxford History of English Literature (OHEL) to which Lewis also contributed – English Literature At The Close Of The Middle Ages, among other books scanned in the Internet Archive. (Williams produced an abridged version of his compilation of records of Shakespeare’s life.)

          Liked by 1 person

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Re. 1: these must be available somewhere – conceivably even online – but I don’t know where/how to find them!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tangentially, here’s an example of something that can happen when someone enjoys something from an ‘old book’ – in this case, Robert Herrick’s ‘Ceremonies for Candlemasse Eve’ (published in Hesperides, in 1648):

    Liked by 1 person

  8. dalejamesnelson says:

    As Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko has argued in his masterful The Demon in Democracy, moderns promised freedom and perpetual progress, but have given us instead mediocrity and debasement.



  9. dalejamesnelson says:

    This column


    gathers usefully some familiar facts and insights. I sympathize with Harold Bloom’s weariness.


    • Though I don’t share the author’s perspective (journal-wise, I am not an American Conservative), and though I like the diversity of the canon as it evolves, I would be more alarmist in many ways than the author about the loss of humanities and liberal arts exploration in the academy. I worked in higher education policy development in my province and never convinced a single bureaucrat for even a minute of my views that we need to give spaces for rooted exploration, curiosity, and free exchange of ideas.


      • dalejamesnelson says:

        I wonder, Brenton, how much we might actually agree about the college English curriculum. I’m regretful about what has been lost (and the more that is likely to be lost), while you wouldn’t want to lose (some of) the works that are often taught now and that are by women authors and members of ethnic minorities. I don’t hear you advocating -replacement- of the standard authors by the current ones.
        But it amounts to that, when you look at what’s been going on in English departments. The same colleague whom I’ve mentioned, who got her course on women authors added to the curriculum, advocated dropping the Shakespeare course requirement. (I was in a -very- small English department with extremely limited literature offerings.)
        I believe I’ve seen the -replacement- of courses in standard authors and works, by courses in Theory. Perhaps you don’t like that much more than I do.
        I see this as an important aspect of the ongoing -replacement- of traditional moral norms and democratic civility by a new mentality that suggests the passion of the Red Guards in Mao’s China.


        • I assume we are pretty close in a lot of ways. But…
          Well, I sort am arguing for a replacement but not a whitewashing (or banishment). For example, students get a handful of Shakespeare, a couple of Chaucer tales, a bit of mythology, a snatch of Homer, etc., but past generations got all of it or much of it. But in 1640 they got a lot more of Chaucer’s age–perhaps a dozen or two dozen texts–that are now specialties. The reading of the Greeks and Latins in 1640 was vast, and now we’ve got it down to a few hundred pages (which we’ll lose soon enough). In 1640, they read quite a number of pieces alive in 1590 that we don’t think canonical.
          The canon always moves and adapts.
          Moreover, I believe the “canon” not just to be the “best books” (it’s partly that) but the books that shape our thinking and culture and conversation and taste. I think of it as a kind of moral framework–relative, of course, not perfect and always adapting, but a moral one. That is why I think the canon cannot remain 95 white guys and 5 women or people of colour. We cannot get a full human experience from a selection of experience so narrow. Moreover, the imperial project bound up with many of the authors shows that there are morally suspect aspects to the canon. That’s fine–it isn’t a moral law but a moral baseboard. But one that is transformed continually as we move but that doesn’t erase the past can be better for the full human experience.
          I also think this is a moral change, but an American one, a belief in pragmatism that is Darwinian rather than Christian. This is seen in the relativism of today, but it is more than that. The change is driven by students (and parents) trying to get ahead or get a real job. Christians are not responsible for this, but their sell-out to the idea that humans are economic units–a Darwinian Marxist dialectical idea–has seen a shift in understanding of political and social leadership to that of economic management. Ronald Reagan said it perfectly as governor in the late 60s: we can no longer afford intellectual curiosity.
          It always amazes me that American rejections reject Darwinism–certainly social Darwinism in name if not the actual scientific approach–and yet have taken up Darwinism with an energetic, bootstrapping, politics of get-aheadness and competition, arguing that it is a moral imperative that human competition based on greed be allowed full rein. After all, universities are just a food court of possibilities; who are we to say what people should learn?
          This, to our ruin and to the great shame of Christians now and as ages look back on us.


  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just ran into this about state and private education and (un)familiarity with poetry by a professor – who has also translated the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy – directed in the first instance to those in communion with him, but more widely, too (and sounding quite a lot like things I have heard George Sayer say about his own experience of memorizing, and in commendation of it):


    Something he does not make explicit, and while the Wikipediast tells us that “Dementia in the elderly has previously been called senile dementia or senility, and viewed as a normal and somewhat inevitable aspect of growing old, rather than as being caused by any specific diseases. The terminology, ‘senile dementia’ or ‘senility’, is no longer recommended”, I assume that implicit in his reference to ‘dementia’ is the happily widespread experience of joyful memory of songs, prayers, and poems learnt in childhood by those, especially in old age, suffering pronounced memory loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dalejamesnelson says:

      My dad, before his death, experienced considerable memory impairment, but loss of things he once remembered, and the development of “memories” of things that hadn’t happened. But he did remember bits at least of songs, etc. I sometimes sent him short videos of myself playing (however ineptly) bits of hymns he’d known, on guitar, and he would recognize them, maybe sing bits.

      So when children no longer memorize things (except commercials?), the conventional educational system may be robbing them of a resource that could be a comfort in old age.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I have read one thing and another – and perhaps some of this was accented by George Sayer, too – about how valuable such things committed to memory can be to people in dangerous, lonely, stressful situations, too – in war, marooned, imprisoned, for example – but the only concrete, and unusual, example that springs to mind so far, is that of Patrick Leigh Fermor and the German General he and his commando comrades successfully kidnapped on occupied Crete:

      As they climbed Mount Ida, Kreipe muttered the first line of Horace’s ninth ode, Vides ut alta stet niue candidum Soracte, “You see how Mt Soracte stands white with deep snow,” and Leigh Fermor responded with the rest of the poem:

      The general’s blue eyes had swiveled away from the mountain top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” “Ah, yes, Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.


      Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        —I have seen Christians in restricted nations smile and laugh like children at Christmas when they open a suitcase of smuggled-in Bibles and other Christian literature. Many feel blessed to have just one page of God’s word. They memorize their page, then trade with another believer and memorize that page as well. They know that if they go to prison, the only Bible they will have is the one hidden in their hearts (Psalm 119:11). Therefore, they make it their goal to memorize as much of Scripture as possible.—-

        “Lessons of the Persecuted Church”

        Liked by 1 person

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