I am writing from the first event of the second day of eng Engage Event, a panel discussion debating the questions, ‘What is a Great Writer?’ and ‘What is a great text?’, chaired by Rebecca Beasley.
The first panel member was Seamus Perry, who focuses on Romanticism and post-Romantic poetry, especially criticism of their poetry.
Perry described two litmus tests for the great book. The first was from W. H. Auden, who said that the sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read in a number of ways; as a result, upon re-reading, one discovers something different in the text.
Vladimir Nabokov takes Auden’s assertion a step further. He says, ‘You can’t read a book at all. All you can do is re-read a book.’ It is only on the second reading that one can read actively and creatively.
After all, as Perry points out, pornography has no capacity for re-readability: once you’ve read it in one way, you have exhausted its possible interpretations.
Perry takes as his example of a great text Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ While Nabokov might not approve– the poem is very accessible, and can be read for pleasure the first time through– with every re-reading, new aspects of the poem unfold, and the myriad criticism proves that there is a plurality of interpretations of the text. Popular theories about the poem include:
- It’s an ecological parable
- It represents imperialist guilt
- It illustrates psychological disturbance
- It reflects the randomness of a meaningless universe
- It demonstrates the moral cohesion of a world ruled by God
And Coleridge’s poem is a poem about retelling. The mariner is telling his own tale, and likely has told it many times before. Coleridge couldn’t stop tinkering his work, either: 19 versions of the poem exist.
This re-readability (or re-writability) ensures that the Rime passes Auden’s test, even in an additional aspect that Auden mentions: a great book is ‘Not one we read, but one that reads us.’ With every reading, your interpretation allows you to discover something about yourself.
The second panellist was Margaret Kean, expert in Renaissance literature, particularly Milton. She examined Paradise Lost as a great text, and Milton as a great writer.
Paradise Lost is acknowledged as great, emulated, and admired, and is certainly a challenging text to read. It is rendered difficult largely because of its grappling with Christian theology. Maybe it was easier for the initial readers of Milton to really grasp the revolutionary nature of the work. They knew Milton as a radical man, and they understood Milton’s refusal to celebrate national supremacy, instead telling the story of man’s fall and his failure to live up to God’s ideals.
Yet illustrating this failure challenges readers to renew their commitment to engage with life, with theology, and with literature. Milton uses his high poetic style to get through to a readership numbed by a post-regicidal world.
Milton certainly positions himself as a great writer and a classic from the beginning of the work. His preface explains the poem is written in ‘English Homeric verse, without rhyme.’ He claims his poem represents ‘ancient liberty recovered from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyme.’ Readers are told how to view the poem in the context of classical literature, and are told to re-think all they’ve read before in the new context provided by Paradise Lost. The first sentence of Paradise Lost is so long that one has to re-read (back to Auden’s test…) even within the first sentence. You can only understand the sentence if you really engage with it.
Looking at Paradise Lost also reveals a great deal about how a culture constructs its own cannon. Milton re-wrote Paradise Lost to transform it from ten books to twelve books in order to make it appear more like a classic, emulating Virgil’s Aeneid. In 1688, fourteen years after Milton’s death, Paradise Lost came out in its 4th edition as a folio published as a subscription. Within 40 years of his death Milton had been positioned as a classical author, with The Tattler magazine releasing detailed notes to accompany the text. It became a book used as a foundation for empire, The Great English Classic, and was used to educate those even in the farthest-reaching corners of England’s lands.
Of course, Paradise Lost engendered responses in other works: Shelley’s Frankenstein, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Pullman’s His Dark Materials, for a start. A recent edition of Paradise Lost has an introduction by Philip Pullman. He is a more marketable version of Pullman, as young readers are more familiar with Pullman. But also, placing Milton alongside Pullman encourages cross-readings between texts.