When we dip into the rich variety of novels, poems, and plays which constitute English Literature we are reading works which have lasted for generations, or centuries, and they have lasted because they are good. These works say something worth saying, and say it with artistry strong enough to survive while lesser works drop into obscurity.
Literature is part of our cultural heritage which is freely available to everyone, and which can enrich our lives in all kinds of ways. Once we have broken the barriers that make studying literature seem daunting, we find that literary works can be entertaining, beautiful, funny, or tragic. They can convey profundity of thought, richness of emotion, and insight into character. They take us beyond our limited experience of life to show us the lives of other people at other times. They stir us intellectually and emotionally, and deepen our understanding of our history, our society, and our own individual lives.
In great writing from the past we find the England of our ancestors, and we not only see the country and the people as they were, but we also soak up the climate of the times through the language itself, its vocabulary, grammar, and tone. We would only have to consider the writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boswell, Dickens, and Samuel Beckett side by side to see how the way writers use language embodies the cultural atmosphere of their time.
Literature can also give us glimpses of much earlier ages. Glimpses of Celtic Ireland in the poetry of W. B. Yeats, or of the Romans in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, can take us in our imaginations back to the roots of our culture, and the sense of continuity and change we get from surveying our history enhances our understanding of our modern world.
Literature can enrich our experience in other ways too. London, for example, is all the more interesting a city when behind what we see today we see the London known to Dickens, Boswell and Johnson, or Shakespeare. And our feeling for nature can be deepened when a landscape calls to mind images from, say, Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, or Ted Hughes.
The world of English literature consists, apart from anything else, of an astonishing array of characters, from the noble to the despicable – representations of people from all walks of life engaged in all kinds of activities. Through their characters great authors convey their insights into human nature, and we might find that we can better understand people we know if we recognise in them characteristics we have encountered in literature. Perhaps we see that a certain man’s behaviour resembles that of Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, or a certain woman is rather like The Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Seeing such similarities can help us to understand and accept other people.
Good works of literature are not museum pieces, preserved and studied only for historical interest. They last because they remain fresh, transcending as well as embodying the era in which they were written. Each reader reading each work is a new and unique event and the works speak to us now, telling us truths about human life which are relevant to all times.
We don’t have to read far before we find that a writer has portrayed a character who is in some way like us, confronting life-experiences in some way like our own and when we find ourselves caught up with the struggles of a character perhaps we are rehearsing the struggles to come in our own lives. And when we are moved by a poem it can enrich us by putting words to feelings which had lain dormant for lack of a way of expressing them, or been long-forgotten in the daily round of the workplace, the supermarket, the traffic jam, and the TV News.
We can gain a lot from literature in many ways, but the most rewarding experiences can come in those moments when we feel the author has communicated something personally to us, one individual to another. Such moments can help validate our personal experience at a depth which is rarely reached by everyday life or the mass media.
So why do we need to study English Literature, instead of just reading it? Well, we don’t need to, but when visiting a country for the first time it can help to have books by people who have been there before by our side.
When we start to read literature, particularly older works, we have to accept that we are not going to get the instant gratification that we have become used to from popular entertainment. We have to make an effort to accommodate to the writer’s use of language, and to appreciate the ideas he is offering. Critics can help us make that transition, and can help fill out our understanding by telling us something about the social climate in which a work was written, or about the personal circumstances of the author while he was writing it.
We are not going to enjoy every literary work, and there may be times when we find reading a critic is more interesting than reading the actual work. Reading the work of a good critic can be edifying in itself. Making the effort to shape our own thoughts into an essay is also an edifying experience, and just as good literature lasts, so do the personal benefits that we gain from studying and writing about it.
Whether we choose to study it or read it for pleasure, when we look back over our literature we are looking back over incredible richness. Not just museum pieces, but living works which we can buy in bookshops, borrow from the library, or download from the internet and read today, right now.