Anthony Burgess, in his English Literature – a Survey for Students, starts his “journey” talking about science and arts. He explains that the original purpose of scientists, their first task, was, is and will ever be, to be curious and to go far beyond the answers they found: to try to find the “truth about the truth” (p. 2). Truth is a value, as beauty is. While scientists seek truth, artists deal with beauty. These two values represent two different ways of examining the world. The primary task of an artist is to create something beautiful and the purpose of what he creates is just to be beautiful. This sense of beauty must arouse in the observer a static excitement, the excitement of a discovery: the discovery of a pattern, of order in life. The pleasure we experience through a work of art results from the acknowledgement of connections between aspects of life that didn’t existed before, or that we weren’t able to discern. Burgess explains that this is the “highest kind of artistic experience” (p. 5). There’s another kind of artistic pleasure which derives from the artist’s ability to express our own feelings, helping us to separate them from ourselves. In a work of art these feelings are part of a pattern and, because of that sense of unity, those emotions appear as necessary.
Literature uses words to achieve that task and writers usually make use of connotation to reach our innermost emotions. To Burgess, poetry is “the highest form of literature” (p. 6) and the one which exploit the most the use of connotation. At this point, it appears to be important to highlight some aspects of the author’s discourse. Saying that poetry is the highest form of literature is to establish a certain kind of rank between the different literary genres. Literature consists of different ways of using language, but they all get together to form that unified artistic expression we call Literature. It seems to me that one cannot determine which one of these “uses of words” is the highest one, because this definition would be always stained with personal preferences and, therefore, with subjectivity. But, returning to Burgess’ point, he makes clear that the poet’s use of words is so “free” that he can create different associations and different meanings, sometimes simultaneously, through the use of ambiguity. This is also possible to the writer of prose, but the poet, to Burgess, has a differential: he is able to exploit sound and melody and to convey meaning trough them. Because of this, the author affirms that poetry should be considered the most literary branch of literature, that is, because it exploits to the full the possibilities of words, being those the “raw material” (p. 7) of literature.
Burgess goes back to the Greeks to remind us of the three kinds of poetry that existed them: lyrical poetry, which relied solely on the potentialities of words; dramatic poetry, which made use other artifices as plot and characters, for example; and epical poetry, by means of which the poet could tell a tale, what demanded the ability to narrate, to construct a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and to do that, the writer couldn’t rely just on the power of words. Burgess explains that epic has become our novel. Movies and plays replaced dramatic poems. Lyrical poetry remained as the only real expression of poetry, to the author. But the way Burgess talks about poetry passes the idea that this branch of literature is so moribund to the point that he even foresees a future without poetry. For me, that’s not real. There are a great amount of good poets nowadays and a great deal of people who admire their work. It is also possible to say that the work of many poets of the past is being read and admired for centuries. Poetry is alive and it will never die: as long as men exist, poetry will never cease to be produced and “consumed”.
Burgess tells us that his book will deal with drama, novel and poetry produced in English, inside the British Isles. He starts his journey explaining that English literature is strongly influenced by the geography and the climate of England. He affirms that English literature reflects the awareness of the English society concerning the four seasons of the year. The peculiar climate of England and its geography produced a conservative people, but it didn’t prevented the raising of “rebels and eccentrics” (p. 12) like Shelley, Byron and Blake. In the contrary: precisely because of that conservativeness they became rebels.
Burgess describes the English as a society which loves justice, but hates laws and, partly because of that, seems to be a mad society. The hatred for laws is reflected on literature when we see that English writers don’t like to follow rules and, sometimes, even dare to create new words to fulfill their purposes. Yet, talking about English literature requires a deep knowledge of the English Language and because of that, Burgess tells us about the “historical phases” of English.
Old English seems to be a totally different language when compared to Modern English, but they two are “English” itself. Burgess makes it clear that he will provide the reader with the knowledge of what kind of literature was produced in Old English and that his main concern is Modern English literature (despite that warning, he brings to us a very rich material dealing with Old English literature). According to the author, Modern English starts when poetry and prose become more understandable, more recognizable as English as we know it nowadays. However, before that, there was a “phase of transition” (p. 13) in which language starts to move forward the English we speak: this phase was Middle English. Burgess highlights that language changes in two dimensions, time and space, and that’s why different variations of English lived together during Middle English, some totally foreign to us and others already somewhat modern. That variation in space is responsible for the different kinds of English spoken in England, for example, the different dialects. Some of these dialects are established as the more important at a certain moment. In England, the more important dialect is the Standard English, or King’s, or Queen’s English. It’s interesting to notice that the establishment of a standard dialect is something modern. During Middle English all dialects lived together and literature was produced in all of them.
Anthony Burgess presents us an overview on English literature and starts talking about the Angles and the Saxons, peoples which migrated from the north of Europe escaping from what he calls “barbarous and ruthless hordes” (p. 15), the same who were partly responsible for the falling of the Roman Empire. The Angle and the Saxons settled in Britain and drove the British (people who lived there before) west. They were not Christian; their gods were old Germanic deities. But they were civilized in the sense that they had their laws, government and even literature, which they brought with them to England. Burgess elucidates the fact that this literature was recorded when England was, again, Christianized by Irish evangelists and it was discovered only at the time of Reformation. This literature was passed orally from generation to generation in verse and almost entirely anonymously. Later on, it was written down by monks in the monasteries.
Beowulf is the oldest poem written in English and it is a warrior’s story. It’s interesting to highlight what Burgess points out about this poem. He says that it’s “in no way a crude and primitive composition” (p. 18). Beowulf was not written in England, it was brought there by the Anglo-Saxons, that is, it was produced by some other barbarous or pagan people. It proves that it is not possible to say, for sure, that these peoples were uncivilized or that they had a poor, undeveloped culture, as we are told by some documentaries and Hollywood movies. The poem is well constructed and rich in its images and language, proving to be a “product of an advanced pagan civilization” (p. 18). Beowulf, and most of the literature written in Old English, was written in head-rhyme and reflected the strength of the language itself. Another interesting fact that the author brings to light is that Old English writers usually had to use uncommon names or to make up new words to be able to create poems using read-rhyme. Burgess also mentions The Seafarer and The Wanderer as other examples of poems in Old English and suggests that the melancholy of these writings could be due to the heaviness of Old English, among other factors.
The author explains that Northumbrian dialect was used to write poetry in the ninth century but that changed when the Danes invaded England and sacked Northumbria. Wessex was, now, “England’s cultural center” (p. 21). Alfred, the Great, King of Wessex, was responsible for many great deeds, among them, for defeating the Danes in 878 and for improving the state of education in England. He himself was a good prose writer, what he demonstrated through his translations from Latin. Burgess finishes his overview on the Anglo-Saxons explaining that much of the history of that period, especially from the ninth century to 1154, is known through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in Old English prose, but already showing signs of the transition towards Middle English.
Burgess moves on and tells us about the Normans, a gay people whose language was quite different form that of the Anglo-Saxons, reflecting all the lightness and joy of its speakers. Under the leadership of William, the Conqueror, the Normans took over the country. After a period of adaptation between the culture of the south and that one of the north, brought by the Normans, the literature produced reflected the color of Old French literature, with its light melody and its end-rhyme patterns.
Something very interesting in Burgess’ text is that he presents us very useful information about the history of the English language. At this point of his “journey” he explains that, at first, the Normans couldn’t speak English and the English weren’t able to speak Norman French. So, they started to use Latin to communicate and that’s why songs and histories in Latin were produced during this period. These histories brought to light English and European mythology. We can find Greek gods in writings produced from this time on and Burgess points out that, around this time, the myth of Arthur was revived and established for ever in English culture. Returning to the issue of language, English prevailed but it came out from this cultural and linguistic clash full of changes, especially vocabulary borrowings from Norman French and, surprisingly, from Latin. And that’s how we can see Old English becoming Middle English.
Before introducing us Geoffrey Chaucer, Burgess mentions some writers who “pave[d] the way for the first great English poet” (p. 26). What seems important to highlight is that Chaucer’s writings reflected the future, as Burgess explains, with its regular rhyme-patterns, color, wit and French stanza, whilst those other writers from the fourteenth century addressed the past, writing with head-rhyme about religious themes in a formless style. Burgess then reveals some biographical data about Chaucer and explains that, although having become a well educated and cultivated man, he decided to write in the East Midland dialect of English, the one that was actually spoken in London, facing some difficulties because there wasn’t an established literature to consult. So he had to “create English”. In The Canterbury Tales, he uses language to draw real people and to describe a vivid portrait of life. The English he uses is quite modern when compared to the previous poets. The tales are told by different characters who illustrate, with their different discourses and philosophies, the society of that period. They are in a pilgrimage to Canterbury and they meet in the Tabard of Harry Bailey who offers a free soup to the one who would tell the best tale. We don’t know who the “champion” is because Chaucer dies before finishing The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer also wrote Troilus and Criseyde and Burgess affirms that this was “the first full length piece of English literature” (p. 34). English changed substantially after Chaucer and pronunciation changes made his works seem to lack rhythm. Because of that Chaucer was regarded as a “crude author”. Burgess mentions some Scottish writers who maintained Chaucer’s ‘style’. Skelton, was a great Scottish writer from the 15th century who had a different and strange style for his time. He wrote short lines, with simple words and a loose rhyme-pattern. A different kind of poetry mentioned by Burgess is the ballad, which was a kind of oral, anonymous poem characteristic of the border between England and Scotland. The Oxford Book of English contains many ballads from the fifteenth century and even from earlier times.
Regarding prose, the author explains how a commercial concern made a man contribute to the establishment of a standard dialect: William Caxton (1421-91) was responsible for the first pressed writings in England and he decided to print his writings in prose using the English he spoke. He was interested in selling books, so he wanted to be understood for as many readers as possible. He also printed Sir Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur in 1484, a work of a “clear and dignified” (p.38) prose. Burgess highlights an intriguing aspect of this literature that emerges in Modern Age: the fact that the first great book printed looks back to the past, to mythology, rather than to the future. This constant mentioning to past, present and future shows that Burgess regards literature as a universal and atemporal phenomenon and this conception enriches his survey and our understanding about English literature.
The author makes a brief stop to talk about the importance of the Bible to English literature. He shows how it was difficult to translate the Bible during Middle Age, as the Catholic Church prohibited it. The Protestantism arose this idea that the Bible should be read by every man and in their vernacular tongues. After many translations (which frequently resulted in the death of the translators), King James I reunited forty-seven illustrated translators to produce an official translation of the Bible: King James Version (1611). Burgess explains that through all this process, English was influenced by Old Hebrew poetry.
Turning to English drama, we learn that the first plays weren’t actually plays, but a kind of religious ritual based on mimetic faculty, sympathetic magic, beliefs in gods and fear of starvation. These rituals represented the four seasons and the results people believed the changes between them (represented as fights between seasons) brought to their lives: what happened in dramatic representation must happen in reality, through sympathetic magic. These representations had a plot, action, a climax and a happy ending: it was drama. Burgess reminds us that Greek drama was close to religion also. It aimed to show the moral relation between gods and men. Through tragedies we see men facing destruction as a payment for their sins or for the faults in their character. This dramatized punishment purges the spectator’s feelings, teaching men how to deal with their instincts.
In Shakespearean drama we can see a huge difference: Shakespearean heroes do have a choice and if they fall, their fall is not a result of a god’s act or a punishment, but an offspring of the hero’s own faults of character. They are able to correct themselves. These differences illustrate the differences between fate and free will: as Burgess highlights, “free will suggests ‘activity’, submitting to fate implies ‘passivity’” (p. 50). But during Middle Age, English drama at least in its beginnings, was closely linked to religion. Drama was used to teach those people who couldn’t read or fully understand the sermons. It’s important to notice that religious drama was introduced to England by the Normans and as the plays become more sophisticated, a process of secularization began. The plays started to be performed in the streets by non-religious actors and these Miracles Plays, as Burgess defines them, came to be regarded as a kind of entertainment. These anonymous plays were performed during the feast of Corpus Christi, since 1311, organized by trade-guilds.
Some plays began to explore the comic potentialities of Biblical incidents and, this way, drama separated, even more, from its original religious nature. After these guild dramas, a tradition of professional plays dealing with secular subjects started. The morality plays represented a moral lesson by means of allegory: abstract ideas were personified. Some examples of morality plays mentioned by Burgess are Everyman, The World and the Child and Youth, the later deal with the acquisition of wisdom which reforms vice. These plays were performed by professional companies. This process evolves until drama arrives at Shakespeare, when moral themes will be presented through the representation of personal conflicts and not as “a mere illustration of a religious doctrine” (p. 59) (that’s quite enlightening the way Burgess reveals the peculiarity of Shakespearean drama, comparing the way it treats and represents human nature to the way Greek drama used to represent it). In the end of the fifteenth century, professional companies started to perform the plays in the middle of a feast or an official event, as an interlude, sometimes inside castles as an aristocratic entertainment, not anonymously anymore. But, at the streets, remained a “rather crude morality play” (p. 59). The aristocratic play set the path to Elizabethan drama, a new era in English literature.
Anthony Burgess presents us a deep view into the history of Old and Middle English literature. He doesn’t give the reader an over detailed survey, and maybe that’s what keep the reading pleasant and enjoyable. The author focuses on meaningful information, providing us with a general view about the issue. As we highlighted before, at certain moments he seems to adopt a radical position concerning poetry “versus” prose, but it enriched his text in the way that it shows his personal opinion about this question without jeopardizing the informational value of his survey. The first chapter of English Literature – A Survey for Students, those which deal with Old and Middle English literature are a valuable source of study for those who are interested in a rich and concise overview on this somewhat mysterious phase of English Literature and the information provided is quite valuable to understand Modern English literature in the sense that it reveals the fountain from which our modern writers have been drinking.
BURGESS, Anthony. English Literature - A Survey for Students. London: Longman,1974.