BooksLiteratureThe Norton Anthology

September 6, 2013

Finished the Book!


During my childhood, at regular intervals, somewhere in our house a book slammed shut and the call rang out, “Finished the book!” My father, my brother and I all participated in this ritual. My mother mostly read the Bible and of course, there’s never an end to that. This morning I quietly closed the 2533 pages of The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 2 and informed the cat that I had finished the book and the summer was now over. My copy was a fourth edition that came out in 1979 after my years in college; but before the women’s movement and multi-culturalism had made a dent in the canon, and before the explosion of literary theories that has changed English departments everywhere. So it was, in a way, an Edwardian summer.

I don’t know exactly what possessed me to declare The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 2 a summer reading project other than a curiosity about writers whose writings were a mystery to me. But I didn’t want to forego the pleasure of reading writers I remembered enjoying in college so I ended up finishing the whole book. What surprised me over and over was how much I had changed since college. The only writer who has made it through all those years with me is John Keats. All my other old favorites didn’t appeal to me as much this time: Wordsworth, Byron, Housman, Eliot, and Auden.

I met up with new friends: Burns, Coleridge, de Quincey, Mills, Tennyson, Browning, Huxley, Kipling, and Hopkins. I wrote about many of them in my previous 15 posts and I laid the infrastructure to read more of Browning and Hopkins. I also want to read more of who were, in 1979, considered new and upcoming poets: Molly Holden, Elaine Feinstein, and Seamus Heaney. Molly Holden died in 1981, Seamus Heaney died just last month (August, 2013) and Elaine Feinstein is still going strong.

A lot of writers and artists experience depression and it was the recognition of a shared experience that made reading Coleridge, de Quincey, and Hopkins poignant. Especially Hopkins who also had the religion thing going on: that struggle to make sense of what it means to be alive while thinking—or trying to not to– under the constraints of a Judeo-Christian paradigm. Kipling was comic relief to the intensity of the depressed poets. He had a calming Nanny Knows Bestness about him. Browning was wickedly funny. His pokes at religion made him a nice bookend to Hopkins and kept the two of them far enough apart that they couldn’t get into fist fights. Robert Burns spoke to me with the sweetness of a singer.

I certainly never meant to open The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol 1, but I was trying to find a poem that I thought was by John Donne. When I couldn’t locate it –or even remember the title—I started scanning the table of contents: The Canterbury Tales. Hmm. I want to read those sometime. Ooh, ooh: The Duchess of Malfi. I remember liking that. “You always were a bloodthirsty little wretch,” my father used to say. The Graveyard Poets. I never gave them enough of a look. Now that I live with a gate opening into a cemetery, I should be more familiar with them. And it’s getting on toward Halloween.

I am so tempted, but I think I’ll wait a bit. Read some New Yorkers and a stack of Funny Times first. Watch a few Vicar of Dibley episodes.

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