Eva Brann, for those who are not familiar, is the former dean and currently a tutor at St. John’s College. I recently read a speech given by Ms. Brann about the “great books” education. In it, she reminds her audience that reading nothing but the classics is untenable and undesirable:
I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously.
One might even make the argument that reading Twitter feeds has some value. Say what you will about social media, but you have to admit that people staring at their phones are at least reading. (Well, some of the time, anyway.)
Ms. Brann is not the first person to advocate reading widely in addition to reading the classics. It is no surprise, of course, that the very notion is practically one of the tenets of classical liberal education.
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, the titular narrator describes her formal education under her aunt. It is a stifling mixture of pious theology, German, classical French “(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)”, music, domestic arts, and “a dozen books on womanhood.” The “liberal education” of a lady is circumscribed to a few particular fields that would prepare her for a life of agreeing pleasantly with her husband when his conversation is not completely over her head.
On her own, however, Aurora engages in a private and personally guided course of study. She starts with the Greek of Theophrastus and the Latin of Aelian, but she eventually devours all manner of books. Bad books, good books, “some bad and good at once.” She reads moral books, genial books, merry books, melancholy books. She, like Ms. Brann, has a firm grounding in the classics, but is eager and able to see the value in all manner of writings.
Beer of the week: Semedorato Premium- In honor of the half-Italian protagonist of Aurora Leigh, this week’s beer is the 100% Italian Semedorato Premium. Semedorato is also brewed with 100% malt, rather than with adjunct grains. This lager is pretty much what I expect out of a Mediterranean beer. It is crystal clear and quite pale. The aroma is faint and slightly sweet. The flavor is understated, but pleasant. It is a very drinkable, if unremarkable beer.
Reading of the week: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – This excerpt is from Book One of the nine-book poem. The orphaned title character has come to live in England with her aunt. Very much in spite of the aunt’s attempts to raise Aurora to be a proper lady, Aurora becomes obsessed with literature and decides that she wants to be an author.
Question for the week: Ms. Brann’s favorite “non-classics” are westerns. What is your favorite “non-classic” genre?
This is the fortieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XL: English Poetry 1 Chaucer to Grey
I have done Dr. Eliot something of a disservice. In an earlier post, I asserted that the Harvard Classics does not include any works by women. However, that is not the case. In the three volumes of English poetry, Dr. Eliot included poems by just over a dozen women. By my count, excluding the anonymous poets for obvious reasons, women make up just about 7% of the authors in the poetry collection. Considering the number of pages dedicated to Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and a few other “big names,” ladies’ poems make up a significantly less than 7% of the total. (To say nothing of the entire volumes dedicated to Burns and Milton.)
Because the ladies are so under-represented, I’ve decided to quote a line by each:
Lady Grisel Baillie
Were I but young for thee, as I hae been,
We should hae been gallopin’ doun in yon green,
And linkin’ it owre the lily-white lea —
And wow, gin I were but young for thee?
Alison Rutherford Cockburn
Oh, fickle Fortune!
Why this cruel sporting?
Oh, why still perplex us, poor sons of day?
The Flowers of the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land, are cauld in the clay.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Say not Good-night, but in some brighter clime
Bid me Good-morning!
Will ye gang down the water side,
And see the waves sae sweetly glide
Beneath the hazels spreading wide?
The moon it shines fu’ clearly.
Lady Anne Lindsay
I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
And why was I born to say, Wae’s me!
Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne
O there arose my father’s prayer, in holy evening calm;
How sweet was then my mother’s voice in the Martyr’s psalm!
The mind wha’s every wish is pure
Far dearer is to me;
And ere I’m forced to break my faith,
I’ll lay me doun and dee.
Tis sad to think the days are gone
When those we love were near;
I sit upon this mossy stone
And sigh when none can hear.
Helen Selina, Lady Dufferin
I’m very lonely now, Mary,
For the poor make no new friends.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only…
Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn.
Christina Georgina Rossetti
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
For good measure, I would point out that the work of another lady can be found in a later volume of the set. Volume XLV has a collection of Christian hymns, including Nearer, My God, to Thee by Sarah Flower Adams
Beer of the week: Stella Artois – It is neither inaccurate nor uncharitable to call Stella the Budweiser of Europe. (The existence of that Czech Budvar notwithstanding.) As Budweiser is the flagship beer of AB InBev in the US, Stella is the European flagship. It is pale gold in color with a fluffy white head. It has a faint aroma of cheap grain. The flavor is standard European macro. Stella is totally drinkable, but unremarkable.
Reading of the week: A Lover’s Lullaby by George Gascoigne – I know what you are thinking: how could I possibly pick a poem by a man after a blog post like that? Mainly, I lacked options. The first of the three volumes of poetry has but a single poem by a lady, and that poem is written in Scots. And besides, Gascoigne writes: “And lullaby can I sing too, / As womanly as can the best.”
Question of the week: Gascoigne’s Lullaby connects poetry with caring for children, which may explain why it is the one genre in which women are represented in the Harvard Classics. Aside from other poems, what other works by women would you add to the Harvard Classics?