Reclaiming the Western Canon

Reclaiming Education, a volume of essays from experts across a range of subjects, edited by literary scholars Catherine Runcie and David Brooks, was published earlier this year. It is vital reading for anyone concerned about the parlous state of education, at all levels, in this country. I concentrated, in my contribution—“Reclaiming English”—on the necessity for that subject’s annihilated disciplinarity to be recovered. An essential element in the disciplinary profile of English (which I could only refer to in passing, in that essay) is the concept of canonical texts—that is, works which would be generally regarded as necessary study for anybody reading for an honours degree in the subject and particularly for those destined for a career (in school teaching, or in the academy) of educating others in the discipline.

What do we mean by a canonical text? Why should this or that text be so regarded? How and by whom is canonicity to be defined? Why is it essential that students of literature be familiarised with the idea and required to immerse themselves in the study of canonical works?

This essays appears in June’s Quadrant.
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The idea of the “canon” (from Greek, meaning a “rule” or “measuring stick”) derives principally from Christianity’s listing of the approved sacred books of the Bible, of the Old and New Testaments, which was generally established by the fifth century AD. These form the required reading and study of the faithful, and are understood to be inspired by God and as expressive of the authoritative history of the relationship between God and his people. There are significant variations among the Christian denominations about the canonical or non-canonical status of various historical texts. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for example, has a broad canon, with as many as seventy different writings considered to be authoritative.

So the first important point that needs to be made about the idea of a canon is that, even in its original biblical manifestation, while there is a generally-agreed list of books, there is also an emphasis on what is widely, but not exclusively accepted. There is much evidence of variations, as well as acknowledgment of the value and significance of non-canonical texts, such as the Apocrypha.

With regard to the study of English literature, the appropriation (in much more recent times) of the concept of the “canonical” has revealed even more flexibility over the mere century or so of the discipline’s development as a university subject. The first Professor of English at Oxford, Sir Walter Raleigh, was not appointed until 1904; the first at Cambridge, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, not until 1912, and it was only in the years after the Great War that English as a respected and increasingly popular university discipline got into its stride, in both the Old and New Worlds.

In our time, the common argument proposed by the formidable forces in the universities who have been very successful in destroying the discipline of English—and, in the process, the concept of the canon of texts that had been developing in the first half-century of the subject’s progress—was the fiction that this was a rigidly-conceived and enforced imposition of mandatory study. Accordingly, it had to be disposed of in the liberating name of various contemporary cultural and sociological shibboleths, which have come to be far more forcibly imposed than any proponent of canonical study would demand.

The essential idea of a canonical text in literature in English is that it should have the status of widespread, time-honoured acclaim and be of a sufficient linguistic and literary standard, complexity, and depth and range of interest to warrant students’ and scholars’ detailed and sustained study, discussion and debate. Nursery rhymes, limericks, hymns, songs and doggerel verse, fables and fairy tales (for example) have been much loved and widely known through the centuries, and in specialist study can yield some interesting insights into language use and popular culture, but it would be perverse to elevate these to the status of canonical texts, as “must-reads” of foundational and seminal significance, for undergraduates in the discipline.

Importantly, study of canonical texts, at the core of English, should, over the course of the several years of the degree, be representative of the successive centuries of the development of literature in English from the later Middle Ages. Indeed, with regard to poetry, at least one major, substantial work from each of the several centuries of English literature should be set for study. This requirement reveals one of the characteristic qualities of canonical texts—that they should substantially disclose and express the “mind” of the age in which they were composed. So, canonically-based study would typically begin with selections from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer gives us, incomparably, insights into the world-picture of his time, because of the variety of his tale-tellers and the rich diversity of the contents of their stories. And he does so with sustained, variegated and exemplary poetic skill.

Then, taking a poem from the seventeenth century, a period of abundant inventiveness and creativity in literature, consideration of John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, provides a perfect example of a text fulfilling several of the requirements of canonicity. It takes, as its subject matter, the Judeo-Christian foundational story of Western civilisation, imaginatively elaborating the account of the creation, fall and redemption of humanity as set out in both testaments of the Bible. Paradise Lost is also a national epic, speaking of and to the English nation in the years of the Civil Wars and their aftermath (being in composition, by the blind poet who dictated the work, from about 1658 to 1663, by which time the Restoration had occurred). And in a third dimension, it is a deeply personal poem, in which we find (unusually in epic) the moving presence of the poet in the midst of his masterwork. Moreover, it displays a command of learning, in the tradition of Renaissance Humanism, staggering in its dimensions and detail, and an originality and inventiveness of language, presenting, as Milton himself affirms, “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”. Inevitably, there are veritable libraries-full of scholarship and interpretation of Paradise Lost, testifying to the vast stimulus to learning and appreciation that his epic has provoked—yet another of the marks of canonicity: the importance which generations of learned readers have attributed to a literary work.

Romantic poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth came strongly under Milton’s spell, Wordsworth famously writing, in 1802, “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour”. In the subsequent Victorian Age, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins also owed much to the earlier poet in terms of prosody (the patterns of rhythm and sound in verse), in spite of the two men’s vastly different doctrinal convictions.

Inevitably, such later thinkers and writers took what they wanted from the earlier poet—admiring or ignoring, for instance, the republican’s political radicalism. And this, too, goes to the matter of the marks of canonicity. A canonical text has multi-layered and textured complexity that makes it available for a rich variety of readings and interpretations, even strikingly conflicting ones. Some read Paradise Lost as a devotional work; others politically, and yet others, purely aesthetically, for the “music” of the poetry.

As if all this were not enough, there is the matter, too, of the inspiration the epic has provided for other art forms, for painters and composers, as in Joseph Haydn’s eighteenth-century oratorio The Creation.

So, you would have thought that the study of Paradise Lost by students of English literature would have been simply taken for granted in the face of all this evidence of its significance and influence; indeed, regarded as unarguably compelling. The almost total disappearance today of the poem for study of any kind, let alone as a compulsory text for university students of English, even for honours and postgraduate students in the subject, is a breathtaking measure not only of the degradation that has been visited on university English, but the sheer lunacy, driven by ideology and the priorities of social engineering, that now prevails in such departments of the discipline as survive.

Paradise Lost also provides proof of the flexibility of the canon in English. The conviction that Milton must be included in undergraduates’ study of the subject was formidably contested in the very years that the canon was being established as the centre of the discipline. T.S. Eliot, a figure who was to loom large in the mid-twentieth-century study of English, with regard not only to his poetry but his literary criticism too (in his championing of the Metaphysical poets, for example, such as John Donne), had “dislodged” Milton—according to another influential commentator on the English curriculum, the Cambridge don and critic F.R. Leavis. This was brought about, Leavis argued, by the characteristics of Eliot’s poetry as well as the poet-critic’s first essay on Milton, published in 1936. Commenting on these two factors, in the tellingly-titled study Revaluation (also appearing in 1936), Leavis arrestingly observed:

Milton’s dislodgment, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss. The irresistible argument was, of course, Mr Eliot’s creative achievement: it gave his few critical asides—potent, it is true, by context—their finality, and made it unnecessary to elaborate a case. Mr Middleton Murry also, it should be remembered, came out against Milton at much the same time.

So much for the polemic that until the post-1960s so-called unshackling of English from its former oppressive proscriptions, everyone engaged in its teaching was of one mind about what must be studied, and of what constituted a canonical text!

In spite of Eliot’s and Leavis’s provocative reconsideration of Milton’s reputation, the great poet’s works remained firmly in place in most university English courses: Paradise Lost was compulsory study in my undergraduate days at the University of Sydney, at the beginning of the 1970s, and I subsequently lectured on the epic in the core English course in English II there, through the 1980s. As it turned out, the criticism of Milton by Eliot and Leavis (and long before them, by Dr Johnson) had proved valuable for putting Miltonists on their mettle with regard to the qualities of such as the poet’s verbal artistry and the importance of Paradise Lost for its influence on the development of English verse in the following centuries.

Surprisingly, Eliot pays tribute to Milton in several places in his own masterwork, Four Quartets, echoing (for example) a powerful phrase from the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes (“O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon …”), in the second quartet, “East Coker”: “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark”. The student who has not read Milton is ignorant of this source and countless other inter-textual Miltonic allusions in literature (Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein, for example, is full of them: they are amongst the most distinctive qualities of her work), enriching meaning and mood—yet another reason for studying canonical texts. Eliot would have assumed that his readers heard the echo of Milton and recalled the plight of Samson which it summons and which he re-applies to the agony of modern life: “all go into the dark”. Without such recollections, one’s reading of Eliot, Mary Shelley and countless other writers is seriously impoverished. Should university English studies facilitate the impoverishment of reading?

I have dwelt on Milton’s masterwork as it is the most egregious and ludicrous example of the disposal of the formerly generally-accepted canon of required reading in English, of its “Great Books”. But numerous other literary works of genius have been similarly cast into oblivion, with further deleterious consequences for the study of the discipline. Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., published in the very middle of the nineteenth century in 1850 and in the midst of the most important intellectual debate of that era, the conflict between faith and doubt, and touchingly reflecting that controversy in the course of an extended elegy for the poet’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam, is the seminal literary and imaginative work for the understanding of that complex issue.

Having immersed ourselves in it and been informed by it, we bring that knowledge to the reading of other, subsequent, significant texts that similarly deal with the topic, from different perspectives, such as Mrs Gaskell’s novel North and South (1854), where the heroine’s father gives up his priesthood, plagued with doubt; and Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son (1907), on the inter-generational division between Victorian believers (such as Gosse’s famous father) and doubters (such as his son). Both texts are classics of their respective literary forms. Yet most students of English literature today would never have heard of either of them, nor of In Memoriam. Gosse’s work, a model of English prose artistry, was republished in the Penguin Modern Classics series in 1970 and described, in its introduction, as “part of the permanent heritage of English literature”. No longer, at least so far as universities are concerned, thanks to the wilful destruction that has been visited upon that very heritage over the last half-century by academics at daggers drawn with the prominent works of Western civilisation, while enjoying, in the university, the privileges and emoluments of one of the institutions that that civilisation produced. Peter Carey knew Father and Son well—his Oscar and Lucinda, winner of both the Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award, was inspired by it. So we read that much later work more intelligently and with deeper appreciation if we have read, like Carey, the seminal, canonical autobiography.

Shakespeare is the notable exception to the ideologically-driven vaporisation of once-canonical authors. He has survived in school and university English courses because his works have proved infinitely malleable to race, gender and class orthodoxies, no matter how preposterously contradictory of the facts of his texts that process proves to be. So, in a recent student’s assignment, I read that she was required to demonstrate that Shakespeare, as an enforcer of the patriarchy, “silenced women”. I suggested to this Year 11 girl that she might query this proposition, by referring to some of the numerous examples of wondrously vocal women in Shakespearean drama, but she replied that that would not be a wise strategy if she wanted a good mark for the assignment. She needed to endorse the “correct” interpretation, in accordance with the principles of Third Wave Feminism, about which she turned out to be much better informed than the works of the greatest of dramatists.

For the study of English, the essential canonical text is the original one: the Bible. Anyone reading, let alone presuming to teach any of the literatures in English, including Australian literature, who is not well-read in the Bible (especially in the case of the text of the Authorised Version of 1611), and acquainted with its dominant influence, through the centuries, on English poetry, fiction, non-fictional prose and drama is engaged, in the phrase from that translation, in the vanity of vanities—where “vanity” means not pride, but pointlessness and meaninglessness. It is a breathtaking indication of the ignorance (nurtured by its familiar progenitor, enforced ideology) that now prevails throughout our corrupted education system that if you were so much as to suggest to boards of studies for secondary school students of English, or in departments of English at universities, that selections (merely) from the text of the Bible should be required reading for the students—so they might be made aware of its existence and some of the fundamental elements of its story-telling and characteristics of its language—you would be met with howls of derision and denunciation.

Barry Spurr was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry, taught several university courses on the Bible as literature, and is the Literary Editor of Quadrant.


  • talldad

    A small side point about the Biblical Canon.

    Some more recent scholarship posits that the NT canon was firmly established before AD70 when the Roman army destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and ended the national identity of Israel. See for example David Chilton Days of Vengeance (commentary on The Revelation to John), and Michael Kruger Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books

  • wayne.cooper

    ‘Against Method’ by Paul Feyerabend posited the odd view that you should on the one hand dispense with rigid rules of grammar, syntax, mathematics, etc., but on the other hand employ reshuffled variants of those very rules to all lines of inquiry when searching for knowledge in order to achieve unique insights. This was in the pre “post-modernist” era of the early ’70s. Things seem to have actually gone downhill from there. In America there are lawyers who conveniently misapply Wittgenstein to argue that since you can’t really prove anything, there should be a re-thinking of the concept of “guilt,” which should be otherwise “passed over in silence.” If reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Fielding, Austen and Dickens is somehow wrong and regressive, there do not seem to be any coherent reasons to think that reading Seamus Heaney, Stevie Smith and Tim Winton are somehow better, the concepts of “better’ and “worse” being themselves by now rendered otiose.

  • Stephen Due

    These days it is all about what you ‘like’. This presents a serious problem for the teacher, because most people do not naturally ‘like’ what an educated person considers to be the best. Anyone raised on popular fiction will inevitably struggle to ‘like’ Chaucer and Milton. The idea that the best literature sets an objective standard is itself beyond the understanding most people today. Which is sad really.

  • Stephen Due

    Apologies – I omitted “of” in the last line of my comment. It would be much appreciated if Quadrant Online would allow contributors to edit their comments after posting them.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    “…thanks to the wilful destruction that has been visited upon that very heritage over the last half-century by academics at daggers drawn with the prominent works of Western civilisation..”

    The Paradise we have lost today is the capacity to enrich experience with what my late English teacher called the “eloquent touchstones of beauty, truth and wisdom” found in great poetry and literature.

    Reflection – private and public – through the lens of such touchstones has been overwhelmed by the cyber-chatter of the moment, where the image is superior to the word.

    (Seventy percent of newly weds, apparently, have unhappy honeymoons because one or other partner are obsessed with getting an Instagram shot better than their friends.)

    Like the lost Archangel, we stumble about, bereft of a moral compass, making “a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n…”

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