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ClassicsOnline Home » KEENLYSIDE, P.: History of English Literature (The) (Unabridged)
Perry Keenlyside tells the remarkable story of the world’s richest literary resource. The story-telling, the poetry, the growth of the novel and the great histories and essays which have informed the language and the imagination wherever English is spoken. This is the fourth in the Naxos AudioBooks Histories series.
The History of
This is, inevitably, a very brief survey of English
literature, and I had better say at once something about the limitations I have
imposed upon myself.
I begin in 1375 or so because Anglo-Saxon writing, however
fine, is in a
language which is pretty well unreadable except by those who
have studied it; the first flowering of genius in something approaching modern
English comes in the second half of the fourteenth century. You will not find
here much mention of Irish, Scottish or Welsh writing: to do these literatures
justice, each would require its own history, although I have of necessity
mentioned such influential figures as Joyce and Yeats in Irish literature, or
Dylan Thomas in Welsh. Were this to be a history of literature in English, I
would obviously have had to include American and post-colonial writers (Eliot
and James are present because they took British citizenship). Dramatists are
treated briefly because the history of drama is a subject in itself [See Naxos
AudioBooks’ The History of Theatre by David Timson]. The major exception to
this rule is Shakespeare, because it seems to me that he belongs almost as much
to literary culture—and, indeed, culture at large—as he does to drama in
Every literary enthusiast will have his or her favorite
authors and texts, and I am well aware that some listeners will be
disappointed, even outraged, by the omission of one or more of those favorites.
I can only apologize, and confess that I have inevitably been influenced by my
own particular loves, however hard I have striven to achieve balance. It would
not take Sherlock Holmes (or indeed any great literary detective) to discover
that Hardy, Chaucer, Austen and Larkin (to name but a few) are close to my
heart… Perhaps I should also say here that literature, for me, has a great deal
more to do with pleasure than with moral earnestness or the arrangement of
authors in order of merit: if reading isn’t enjoyable—and even profoundly
disturbing works like King Lear are, in a sense, enjoyable—then it is probably
a pointless activity. If literature does modify life and how we live it, it can
surely only do so through the medium of pleasurable appreciation.
I have tried to convey here something of the texts – and
contexts – of the major writers in the English literary canon, quoting enough
to give a flavor of each author and attempting to show a little of how they
represent or express the age in which they lived. Many of us (myself included)
find it helpful to be reminded who was alive and writing at a certain time, and
who were his or her contemporaries: the very speed of this survey may provide a
clearer overview of changes and developments through the centuries.
A history like this inevitably begs the question: what is
literature, and how does it differ from other kinds of writing? It is
impossible to provide a satisfactory short answer, but here goes…Literature is
writing which is born of a consciously artistic intent to create something,
which not only expresses a perceived truth about the human condition, but also
tries to do so in a manner, which is aesthetically satisfying and productive of
pleasure. Pamphlets, most journalism, this audiobook, etc., do not therefore
qualify… And what (I hear you cry) are the distinguishing features of English
literature, specifically? No space to do justice to this question, either, but
perhaps it has something to do with its ability to range between the sublime
and the everyday, the infinite and the particular: English literature that is
overtly political or philosophical is rarely entirely successful—unlike, say,
the French, the English have little taste for large abstract theories, and
prefer to build from the ground upwards—from the quotidian to the universal.
George Eliot, through the character of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch,
expresses this tendency to perfection: the novel has a wide emotional,
historical and intellectual scope, and yet its effects are repeatedly achieved
through a particular and beautifully-rendered moment—the moment, perhaps, when
Mrs. Bulstrode comes quietly in to forgive her disgraced husband, or when Mr.
Casaubon’s repulsive coldness melts briefly as he sees and is touched by the
youthful ardor and vulnerability of his watching wife.
The ‘plight’ of literature, or of the novel, or the poem, is
often discussed nowadays, mainly because of the impact of other media and forms
entertainment: the very fact that this is an audiobook is
more books than ever before are being bought—if not always
read—and there will, I believe, always be a hunger for imaginative writing
which enlarges the mind or spirit, which gives a sense of shape or meaning to
the complicated business of being alive. I hope that this history may make a
small contribution to encouraging that process.
Notes by Perry Kennlyside
Lullaby by W. H. Auden
Used by permission of Curtis Brown Ltd. © 1940 W.H. Auden,
renewed. All rights reserved.
Pilate’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy
by kind permission of Picador, an imprint of Macmillan
John Betjeman’s The Metropolitan Railway: Baker Street
by permission of Desmond Elliott, Administrator of the
Estate of Sir John Betjeman
Coming by Philip Larkin,
by kind permission of Marvell Press.
About the Author
Perry Keenlyside was born in 1950. Educated at Charterhouse
and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he has taught English at independent schools since
1973. Apart from literature, his special interests include music—in his youth
he was a competent amateur oboist – anything to do with English history, and
France. He is also a devoted fan of Liverpool Football Club. Other Naxos titles
written or edited by Perry Keenlyside include The Life of Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart, Poets of the Great War and Realms of Gold: The Letters and Poems of
About the Readers
DEREK JACOBI is one of Britain’s leading actors having made
his mark on stage, film and television - and notably as an audiobook reader.
His extensive theatrical credits include numerous appearances from London’s
West End to Broadway. He is particularly known for the roles of I Claudius and
Brother Caedfael, both of which he has recorded audiobook versions of.
JOHN SHRAPNEL was born in Birmingham and brought up in
Manchester. He joined the National Theatre (under Laurence Olivier) playing
many classical roles including Banquo and Orsino. With the Royal Shakespeare
Company he has appeared in classical Greek theater as well as numerous
Shakespearean plays. His television work varies from Stoppard’s Professional
Foul and Vanity Fair to Inspector Morse and Hornblower. Films include Nicholas
and Alexandra, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and the role of Gaius in Gladiator.
JONATHAN KEEBLE’s theater work includes leading roles at
Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Coventry, Liverpool, Exeter, Lancaster and West
Yorkshire Playhouse. Television includes People Like Us, The Two Of Us and
Deptford Grafitti. Jonathan has featured in over 250 radio plays for the BBC
and was a member of the Radio Drama Company.
TERESA GALLAGHER has performed in many leading roles in both
plays and musicals across Great Britain, London’s West End, and Off Broadway.
In addition, she is a well-known voice to listeners of BBC Radio Drama. Her
work on film includes The Misadventures of Margaret and Mike Leigh’s
ANTON LESSER is one of Britain’s leading classical actors.
He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare
Company, including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. Appearances in major
television drama productions include
The Cherry Orchard, Troilus and Cressida, The Mill on the
and The Politician’s Wife.
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