Blog Post

Hands up for more appreciation

Old-fashioned literary appreciation tends to look—well, old-fashioned. But I begin to wonder whether it is perhaps actually “retro” and thus due for a comeback.

My curiosity on this point isn’t idle: over the next few months I will have to write an introductory piece on medieval English poetry, and prepare an introductory course on medieval and Renaissance English literature. If it turns out that what people want from an introduction is to be told what to like, then I will have to change my plans.

This crisis was precipitated by the combination of Joseph Epstein’s cranky review of the Cambridge History of the American Novel with a book I’m now reading on the uses of medieval lyric. Epstein’s review conforms so wholly to the now-traditional Gibbonsesque narrative of the Decline and Fall of the English Department (in which Derrida replaces Jesus Christ) that I didn’t pay much immediate attention to it, except to note that it’s been reposted on Amazon. But it returned to mind as I was reading this evening.

I’d prefer not to name the book in question, because in large part it is a profoundly learned study of how Middle English lyrics were used in certain cultural contexts. I value the author’s explanation of those contexts, and I can take any amount of manuscript-comparison in its service. But when he begins to reflect at length on Middle English poets’ “artistic limitations” compared to the “taut  verbal economy” of Latin predecessors, I begin to be irked to find my time thus wasted. There’s no need to tell me what to think when the poems are right there.

But perhaps the problem is me. After all, in my book’s off-off-Broadway trial appearances, I have occasionally been criticized for calling anyone who composed verse a “poet.” The practice seems to me both rational and economical. I don’t see the usefulness of having a set of terms for people whose verse I like, and another for those I don’t. It’s not that I don’t perceive a difference between Beowulf and an ineptly rhymed two-line colophon. It’s just that I can’t imagine that my readers (either of them) are likely to be such fools that they would need it pointed out either. As Judas remarks in Elene,

“Hu mæg þæm geweorðan         þe on westenne 
meðe ond meteleas                    morland trydeð, 
hungre gehæfted,         ond him hlaf ond stan 
on gesihðe bu         samod geweorðað, 
streac ond hnesce,         þæt he þone stan nime 
wið hungres hleo,         hlafes ne gime, 
gewende to wædle,         ond þa wiste wiðsæce, 
beteran wiðhyccge,         þonne he bega beneah?” (611-18)

[“How could it be that a man who wanders weary and provisionless in the wilderness, clutched by hunger, and sees at the same time a soft loaf and a hard stone, should take the stone as solace for his hunger, scorning the loaf, and thus depart destitute, forsaking the food and scorning the better choice when he had both before him?”]

Some, I suppose, would say that the Uneducated would do just that, without Taste to guide them and point out the better choice. That’s certainly not always true, but when it is—as sometimes it must be—I don’t see that it’s much of a problem. If some people are made to read Paradise Lost, hate it, and turn for solace to creepy ill-punctuated slashfic, the loss is theirs and no one else’s. I can’t imagine that Civilization will be injured by people liking things that are weird and (to my eyes) inferior, since so far as I can tell people have done just that since small-c civilization began: and yet here we are.

But just as linguists are notoriously bad as native informants, perhaps I simply no longer know what laymen (as it were) want out of literary studies. Do People in General want to be told what literature is good and acceptable for Appreciation? I’m quite sure that as an undergraduate I wouldn’t have, and that I’d much have preferred to be told what the literature is, both as an artistic creation and a historical artifact. But maybe I’d already started down the road to perdition.

So, a general question: how much old-school Appreciation do you (O readers of Arcade) incorporate in a) your writings for undergraduate or general audiences, and b) your lectures for introductory classes?

Emily Thornbury's picture
I'm an Associate Professor in the English department at Yale University. My field is early medieval literature, mainly Old English and the Latin of England before the Norman Conquest: my book Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.