When I think of lectures, I picture sitting in a large room with spiral notebook and pen in hand and that question uppermost on the minds of students: “Will this be on the test?”
So, although I actually enjoyed lectures in college, I wasn’t inclined use my precious audiobook time to listen to them. I tend to do better listening to stories while I do something else with my hands. If I am reading for instruction, I need to have pencils and sticky tabs to mark important places, and I need to be able to flip back a few pages to get a better grasp on a concept.
But when Hope reviewed the Great Courses lectures on Classics of British Literature, I decided to get the series (which only cost one Audible credit). I’ve mentioned before that I was not exposed to many classics in my education, so I have made a deliberate point to read them as an adult. While I have enjoyed working through many of the obvious classics, I figured this series would bring more to my attention as well as enhancing my enjoyment of the ones I already knew.
John Sutherland is the lecturer, revealing a wide range of knowledge not only about British classics and authors, but the prevailing influences and philosophies of the times.
There are 48 lectures in the series, each lasting from 30-45 minutes. They begin with Beowulf and Chaucer, traveling over the years to Salman Rushdie, covering plays, poetry, and novels. Some lectures cover a person (some, like Shakespeare and Jane Austen, merit two lectures); some cover an segment of time (“The 1840s—Growth of the Realistic Novel”); some cover a group (“The Metaphysicals—Conceptual Daring,” “The Augustans—Order, Decorum, and Wit”). Some of the lectures cover one particular work (“The King James Bible,” “Frankenstein—A Gothic Masterpiece”). Others explore a particular genre (“Lyrical Ballads—Collaborative Creation,” “Voices of Victorian Poetry”).
Sutherland covers varying philosophies with the qualifier that we don’t have to agree with them, but understanding them helps us better understand the works in a particular time frame. He discusses some bawdy material with a fair amount of discretion, but I do wonder at the selection of those choices to share: however, I guess some of those are a part of the progression of literary history. Likewise, the tawdry content of some authors lives are shared for explanation, not titillation.
When covering several hundred years of literature, one can’t go into everything in depth. However, I was sad that Robert Burns, one of my favorites, received only 10-15 minutes, and his only work quoted was “Auld Lang Syne.” Oddly missing are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and their works (although mention is made that Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar).
However, Sutherland did cover an immense swath of ground in this series. Time and again he brought out what was going on in history, how that influenced literature, and how literature in turn influenced life. This series might be better titled the History and Development of British Literature. Thankfully a PDF copy of Sutherland’s notes is available for further perusal.
It would be impossible to share even a fraction of the information gained from these lectures here, but here are a few points of interest and quotes that stood out to me.
- The first literature was oral and communal rather than written and solitary. (I wonder what people who don’t think listening to audiobooks is “real” reading would say about that. 🙂 )
- “Great literature is timeless. That is one of the main connotations of the word classic.” (Introduction)
- Churches were “the nation’s chroniclers” until the 11th century.
- “Literature is a time machine. It can take us back and connect us
with people who are no longer here. It is, in the best sense, a conversation with the dead. In fact, this is the reason we read and study literature and the
reason that it lives for us. This living quality of literature—the fact that it is
still animated over centuries—makes it worth our time and effort and makes
a historical approach to literature valuable” (from Lecture 1: “Anglo-Saxon Roots: Pessimism and Comradeship”)
- “Literature has many functions in society. That’s one of the things that makes it so interesting to read and to study and to reread. Literature, good and bad, can instruct; it can entertain; it can educate. In some circumstances, literature can even corrupt us. Given literature’s dramatic power to influence readers, it perhaps isn’t
surprising that exactly which works of literature are corrupting has been much disputed throughout the centuries.” (Lecture 4: “Spenser: The Faerie Queen”)
- “If literature can corrupt, it can also civilize or at least contribute to the civilizing process by articulating the elements that hold a society together. Literature defines the core values on which a civilization is founded.” (Lecture 4: “Spenser: The Faerie Queen”)
- I was astonished that Robinson Crusoe was seen not as a classic prodigal son story, but “an allegory of English colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries” and an example of capitalism. (Lecture 17: “Defoe–Crusoe and the Rise of Capitalism)
- Sutherland demonstrates a broad understanding of Christianity expressed in literature, but I felt he missed the boat on the last sentence here (unless the philosophy is of the people he is quoting, in which case the misunderstanding is theirs): “It’s interesting to note that many thinkers, such as Marx, Max Weber, and R. H. Tawney, have argued that the rise of capitalism is intimately connected with Protestantism and Puritanism. Just as capitalism stresses the individual acquisition of wealth, so do Protestantism and Puritanism stress the individual’s private, personal relationship with, and responsibilities to, God. The individual has credit with his maker and must earn his salvation.” (Lecture 17: “Defoe–Crusoe and the Rise of Capitalism) Neither Puritanism nor Protestantism teach that we have any credit with God or that we can earn our salvation.
- I wondered at the statement “The novel would not exist in the form that we have it if it were not for women readers, because the novel is a domestic form” (Lecture 18: “Behn–Emancipation in the Restoration”). Weren’t other types of books read in homes before novels were invented? Or perhaps women generally weren’t as interested in reading until the novel came along?
- “Literature expresses or embodies the noblest aspirations, the finest articulations, of idealism which a culture or society has.”
- In William Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger,” Sutherland brings out the innocence of the lamb and its symbolism. He says, “The answer Blake hints at is that without the destructive tiger—without crucifixion, to allegorize it in Christian terms—the innocence of the lamb would be nothing. It would be literally bloodless. And it is the blood of the lamb, not the innocence of the lamb, that the Christian William Blake believes will save us” (Lecture 24: Blake–Mythic Universes and Poetry). But Christians believe that the Lamb’s – Jesus’ – innocence is vital as well. If He were just any other human, He could not have saved us. And part of salvation is not just forgiveness, but that His righteousness goes on our account: He fulfilled all of God’s law in our place.
- Sutherland considers Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen the “greater than great,” the “giants” of English literature.
- In discussing 20th century poetry, Sutherland pointed out that no one could support himself by writing poetry as a main profession any more. One reason, he felt, was that the energy and creativity that in an earlier era would have gone to lyric poetry now went to popular music.
- “The story of [British] literature is a constant series of beginnings or breaks—sometimes violent breaks—with tradition, or revolutions and new starts. … Literature advances … by rejection, contradiction, and radical innovation.” (Lecture 48: New Theatre, New Literary Worlds)
I definitely learned a lot! Overall, I really enjoyed the series and may explore other Great Courses now.