Why English?

And yet, the contention that literature can be sufficiently understood and appreciated merely as the effect of certain formal peculiarities is unsatisfying. Considered mechanically, language does offer structure to thought. But our interest in literature as literature is more than an anthropologist's interest in objects—objects such as poems—or more than a politico's interest in advancing or excoriating certain social platforms. You can do that effectively without analyzing poems. Poems are more than hidden opinions, op-eds in code. In 735, an English monk named Bede told the story of Caedmon, purportedly the first English poet. Abbess Hild, the female head of Caedmon's monastery, gave Caedmon topics which he turned into lyrics. Once they had become lyrics, they were somehow more than the doctrine inside them. Since the beginning, good readers realize that a poem is not reducible to its content. Literature involves far more than content.

If philosophy deals with the logic of arguments and the implications of ideas, and science deals with data and machinations of the physical world, literature deals with the meeting of both—the place where ideas entwine with plot, action, character, and speech. This metaphorical meeting-place lies somewhere between experience and theology, campaign and strategy, the sea and ideas of the sea. It is the map that describes the land or the voice that mimics other voices. In short, it is the artful coming into being of thought. Ideas become real in the words on the page. Thus, through reading, literature inspires us to virtue and wisdom.

Most importantly, literature is not to be confused with mere writing. Stanley Fish is wrong: a list of names on a blackboard is not poetry—it can be read like poetry, scanned like poetry, collected like poetry, and even contemplated like poetry. But this is mere theology, which even the most moronic belief system can claim, or strategy, which even the most foolish plan can boast. Like most of life, the distinction between writing and literature is a matter of degree (like the difference between cold and hot). Literature is no replacement for a sound theology, nor for sound logic, nor for politics. Nor is there any reasonable claim it ought to be.


Literature is not philosophy, as any good reader of Aristotle or Kant will testify. Neither can it substitute for a well-considered political life. Those battles and conflicts which inhabited the same world as the author of Beowulf or the carvers of the cathedral at Mont St-Michel are largely lost to us. But their loss does not diminish the art. And we must distinguish between the historical context of a poem and the art of a poem, otherwise, as Cleanth Brooks pointed out in 1947, "the poetry of the past becomes significant merely as cultural anthropology, and the poetry of the present, merely as a political, or religious, or moral instrument." We will not resolve the larger questions a good poem poses with an easy historical anecdote—if the questions are meant to be resolved at all (literature is comprehensive of contradictions, not productive of propoganda, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney). Any connection between Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and its society, for example, is mediated by the poet's art. Chaucer, or any writer of similar stature, is not an unthinking vehicle of impersonal cultural forces.

At the same time, a poem is not veiled theology. It does not contain within itself the eternal and ineffable, and its authors are not prophets. Methods of reading Scripture, such as allegory, have, in the long history of reading, come to be applied to secular literature. Intriguingly, those methods presume their end: just as you don't pull out a hammer without expecting a nail, you don't look for truth without expecting truth. As a consequence, we are directed by certain genres to read as if searching out divinity. The method guides the meaning. Literature, as John Donne understood, can become a pulpit, and the grandeur of its tradition gives even the meanest message the voice of its embassy. Any reedy voice in rhythm or rhyme can ask to exercise the office of poet. These are old ruts we travel. There is profit in knowing their contours.


In the end, our headpieces are not filled with straw. Our libraries are not the graves of unremitting oppression, nor our voices damped by the mere limits of our skins. Because literature, that vague art, lies between the constraints of our human bondage and the limitless play of our most abstract thought, it allows us one way to endeavor, to contemplate, and to reform the ideals which govern the material conditions of our lives—the fictions through which we are destined to make sense of what we do. These unattainable, utopian goals are often more important to us and more influential in our lives than are reasonable, material goals. (Essayist Theodore Dalrymple writes, "As the history of the twentieth century demonstrates perhaps better than any other, impossible goals have had at least as great an effect on human existence as more limited and possible ones.") The study of literature is also the study of the idealization of human experience, and a means to understand the immaterial motives of human ambition.

If this is true of the most recent literature, it is true of the most ancient. There is an eternal human condition in which we participate that allows us to understand, to appreciate, and to wonder at the depth and beauty of Aeschylus, Virgil, Beowulf, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. They felt the sun and cold as we feel the sun and cold. Their books sit on the same shelves next to the latest novel, cheek-by-jowl, as new to us as the day they were written. From hundreds of generations of writers and artists, we can learn the most compelling of what has been thought and said. In its invigoration of ancient metaphor and its evocation of the eternal human condition, literature can prepare us to understand the mechanisms of language and thought, and bring us to know the limits of our lives' uncertain portion. There is profit in this, too.