It hit me the other day what I wanted to do for a summer reading project: read The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. I and II. Collective gasp all around. This venerable collection has been around a long time but I don’t believe anyone has actually read it—certainly not the college students for which it was compiled. I have the fourth edition which thankfully reflects the fact that women are and always have been sentient beings. Since there are no women listed as the editors, I say to the eight men listed: Good for you, let’s continue to try to keep up.
I haven’t given up on Ulysses. I’ve just temporarily stalled halfway through the book as have my Joycean compatriots. I think Bloomsday, June 16, would be a good target date to begin again, and it needn’t interfere with the Norton book because I only can read a small chunk of Joyce at a sitting.
I decided to start with Vol. II– because it’s my project and I felt like it—which opens with the Romantic period (1798-1832). It’s not a long period in literature because they all died young of theatrical consumption and angst. I usually clock the romantic period as lasting from the death of Beethoven in 1827 to the beginning of the 20th century, but that’s the perspective of a musician who doesn’t really care and just needs an easy definition.
I began reading a few days ago. Right out of the gate I didn’t think I could bear to read William Blake. I need more help than the footnotes give me. As well, I expect Blake is better read from a book that includes some of his etchings and engravings. But I read some of the shorter poems and have this to report:
I remember a college professor going on and on about “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau” which rails against the thinking of the philosopher Democritus and the poet Lucretius whose De Rerum Natura was ultimately the impetus for my reading the complete canon of Shakespeare’s plays last summer. That’s all. Just a confluence of memory and history. Pause to muse about the mysterious nature of life and time.
Then there is the extremely odd marriage of a Blake poem called “And Did Those Feet” to the Women’s Institute, a kind of 4-H for women, in England. It was put to music by C. Hubert H. Parry in 1916. It makes a stirring anthem but seems a bit odd as a W.I Song.
After singing next to my robust cousin Hazel on Christmas morning in Cornwall however, I can picture her at her monthly W.I. meeting singing,
Bring me my Bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!
and then sitting down to listen in disbelief to that woman from Saltash who claimed she got her crispy pie crust with margarine instead of butter.
And finally, here is one of Blake’s easier short poems. Literary periods and trends come and go. Some things never change:
The Garden of Love
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
I’d like to see those Women Institute ladies with their arrows of desire have a go at those priests.