Forums › General Site Info › Introduce Yourself › "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." › Reply To: "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."
@The-inkspiller you will love Orthodoxy. (It’s the book he wrote after he published Heretics, a collection of essays about problems with modern philosophy, and people said, “It’s all very well to tell us what not to believe, but what should we believe in its place?” and partly autobiographical.) And probably Queer Trades. Is The Blue Cross one of the Father Brown stories there? It’s one of the best ones. Thursday is. . . difficult. It would be well to keep the subtitle in mind (which almost no one does): A Nightmare. It’s also very good.
Chesterton was such a prolific authour, and so much of his writing is really really good, that it came as some comfort a few years ago to find that some of his earlier work was not up to his usual standards. Although you may someday read The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and when you do, you will find it excellent, and think “this was his first novel?” and feel hopelessly inadequate. But he’d had lots of experience with writing before that book, which I think helped.
Also, that is a great compliment, though it is kind of funny that I come across as “authentically British” when the closest I’ve ever gotten to that land is to read its literature (I’m part Irish, if that counts, but never been there yet either).
I can’t say I’ve ever heard of that poem about the monk. I can’t say it’s unlikely such a thing would come out of the Middle Ages, because people were human then as they are now, but. . . it’s certainly not representative of the great pieces of art, let’s say. (I mean, Chaucer does get bawdy sometimes, but he’s no worse than Shakespeare. And it’s not a bad idea to read him, if you can.)
Where to start with the recommendations? The Middle Ages are a huge sweep of time, and there’s so many countries. . . though since I do know most about British lit. I may as well begin there.
(You know, if you can get your hands on The Norton Anthology of British Literature, vol. I, without going bankrupt, do that. There’s lots of gems in it. It’s also some 900 pages.)
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is fascinating for a number of reasons, though I might not put it as required reading for just a general list to get your feet wet. But if you ever have spare time or are interested in historiography or the history of eighth-century Britain, it’s good. Also also also he wrote that Britain was situated near the Pole, which would be a meaningless statement if “everyone back then” believed the earth was flat because the Church suppressed science (he was, after all, a Church-educated monk writing in Latin). And he preserves for us the story of Caedmon and set down Caedmon’s Hymn. But he’s nonfiction.
Beowulf, duh. Tolkien’s translation has loads and lashings of notes which you might find either something to geek out about, if you’re interested in philology, or a hopeless bog to wander through. I like Seamus Heaney’s translation for verse.
The Dream of the Rood is an absolutely beautiful Old English poem, and so are The Seafarer and The Wanderer. The issue with these is getting a translation which keeps things sounding like poetry while being intelligible to an M. E. speaker. Anglo-Saxon poetry includes riddles, narrative poems, allegorical poems, hymns, charms, poems about the alphabet. . . there’s so much more than Beowulf. (No offence to him, he’s a lovely poem to study, but it’s a shame so many students think he’s the only piece of art to come out of Britain between 445 and 1066.) For an introduction to the wide range of things, though the translations are apt to give you a literal translation rather than the poetic feel of the originals — for example, one of the main rules of A-S poetry was alliteration, which is hardly ever to be seen in this translator’s examples, and in my opinion that’s a great shame; but if you find a poem you like you can search for other translations to compare, if this isn’t putting too much work on someone whose specialty isn’t this period — you might try this site: https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/.
Jump forward in time a little bit to The Song of Roland, which is another poem I could go on and on about. . . epic poem probably written in the late 1090’s, about a heroic last stand, treachery, Charlemagne whose beard is streaked with white, Saracen enemies “who truly would be noble knights if they were only Christian”. . . what more could you want? I highly recommend Dorothy Sayers’ translation for this (and just about anything she did, really) — it’s got a good Introduction and will have you striding about the house reading bits aloud to anybody who doesn’t violently push you off.
Sir Gawain (Tolkien translated this too) is well worth reading. We’re into Middle English now and if you want a challenge you can try to find the original (in the sense of untranslated) and have a stab at it. Lots of influence from French, so if you know that it’ll help (I don’t. so. . .).
And oh, Dante! What bugs me to no end about a lot of classes Dante gets more than a passing mention in, is that people only read or only mention the Inferno, as if that’s the only thing he wrote. Whether because of the lingering suspicion that the Middle Ages must have been all fire-and-brimstone, or because if you’re going to read his Commedia you may as well start at the beginning, and then run out of time to finish, I don’t know, but it doesn’t do him justice to have kids read the first third of his story and let them grow up thinking it’s all like that. He starts in Hell but he doesn’t end there! Also, he didn’t write just the Comedy, he wrote loads of love poetry to his Beatrice, which we don’t own so I haven’t read, but they’re probably good? Petrarch is another good one at sonnets, of course. (And Michelangelo wrote poetry too — we’ve got a few of his sonnets somewhere. Surprising, and good.) I can’t say everything I’d like about Dante, but I do encourage you to read the Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dorothy Sayers did a translation of at least the Inferno, quite probably the others as well. Not light reading — he crams in a classical or contemporary reference on every line — but so very worth it.
By the way, women writers aren’t unheard of here. Abbess (and later St) Hildegarde of Bingen, Dame Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe, were writing things geared to religious life, visions and garden manuals and such. Marie de France wrote Arthurian romances, and Christine De Pisan wrote The Treasury of the City of Ladies, and is therefore cited as being an early feminist. (Whatever. She did tell the ladies they’d better learn the use of arms so when their husbands went off they’d be able to keep their houses safe in case of attack.) The Wife’s Lament, an Anglo-Saxon poem, is from the point of view of, and almost certainly by, a woman. And that’s not counting the tons and tons of anonymous material which is as likely to be by a woman as a man, since we don’t know.
Machiavelli’s The Prince is very interesting reading. . .
Depending on when we consider the Middle Ages to have ended, I could toss quite a bit more in there, but that’s probably more than enough to get you started. And the majority is British — think of all the Italian and Spanish and German and French and even Russian stuff waiting out there.
Oh, and there’s some good news: a lot of these are available for free on various places online, including Project Gutenberg, since in most cases the authours haven’t renewed copyright.