Literature: A Student’s Guide

Hello! Yes, it’s been a while….

April has been one of those months that has gone by like a tube through an underground station that’s not on its stop list. Yet the beginning of April also feels far away—as if the tube has travelled far since then and passed through many more stations.

It’s been quite a month, from my final Shakespeare exam to the final weeks of my Non-Western Literature course to housekeeping while my parents were away to a short but delightful weekend in Cambridge with SJ, to a bunch of other things, big and small, joyful and hard. Blogging, therefore, has been limping along in the distance behind me—the limp both of busyness and of Lack of Inspiration.

But here I am again, however, with April almost under my belt, trying to get back into my once-a-week posting rhythm. I have a couple of good books that I’m either reading right now or that are in my to-read queue, so I’m hoping that some of them will pop up here over the next few months. But for now, let me tell you about a little book I’ve just finished, Literature: A Student’s Guide, by Louis Markos. I borrowed it from a friend for a paper I was writing, and although I didn’t end up using it for my assignment, I decided it looked good enough to read anyway.

Literature (no, I’m not going to type the whole title every time) is part of Crossway’s series “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition”. While the series, according to the blurb on the back of the book,  is aimed at Christian students and others involved in academic life, Literature is certainly suitable for teenagers and adults in general, college students or not. It’s short (in the region of 100 pages) and is a down-to-earth and readable introduction to literature—poetry in particular.

Markos begins with an introduction entitled “Why Literature Matters”. He makes a point in there that I, as an English student, particularly like: “I have always found it terribly ironic that people in the natural and social sciences will frequently claim that what they teach is more true than what literature teaches.  I have often wondered how such people define the word true. Certainly one of the most essential qualities of truth is that it lasts, that it does not change radically from age to age and generation to generation, that it persists, endures, abides—which is precisely what does not happen in the sciences. Every fifty years—today it is more like every twenty—scientists reject the old paradigm in favor of a new one. The social sciences change even more rapidly….” He goes on, but I think you get the general idea. When today’s scientific theories have been consigned to history, people will still be reading and learning from and enjoying Shakespeare and Milton and George Herbert, not to mention more recent (and much more ancient!) authors.

The first two chapters actually cover the nuts and bolts of poetry, first in terms of form (“Rhythm and Rhyme”) and then in terms of figurative language (“Words and Images”). If you’ve ever wanted to know about the various meters that are used to provide poetry with its distinctive feel, or are unsure of what a metaphor us, these are the chapters for you. Even if you are more familiar with such terms, it can still be helpful refresher.

I was glad to see Markos touch on free verse, as I distinctly dislike the way so much modern poetry has abandoned metrical form. (I don’t dislike every free verse poem I have ever read, but it has to be a very good poem to atone for being free verse!) Amongst other things, he has this to say: “Poetry, when it is most worthy of itself, is incarnational, fusing form and content, sound and sense into a two-into-one union …. The modern Western world has, in many ways, lost its perception of and belief in a world of order, beauty, and purpose, and that loss is partly reflected, I believe, in the abandonment of traditional meter.” Furthermore, he says in another chapter, restricting oneself to a form actual opens the way for more creativity, rather than less: “the great poets who have ‘enslaved’ themselves to rigid meters have found in it a discipline, an order, and a hierarchy that have made them more, not less, creative.” Thank you, Dr Markos.

Next comes a quick overview of “Authors, Ages, and Genres”, a chapter that provides a helpful, big-picture look at the key periods in literature—Classical, Medieval, and so forth. Markos finishes up with another big-picture sweep through history (“Theory and Criticism”), this time by providing a quick background as to how different periods in history have thought about the nature and purpose of literature (again, poetry is emphasised).

Ok, so he doesn’t quite finish up there—there is also some supplemental material (which I haven’t read): reflection questions, a timeline, a glossary, and resources for further reading. All in all, I think that makes Literature a valuable introduction to, well, literature (remember that that particularly means poetry in the context of Markos’ book). I didn’t agree with every single comment Markos made, but then I don’t even agree with every single comment I make, so I won’t hold that against him! If you don’t already have a literature textbook or handbook, and you’d like a short and simple introduction, I’d recommend it.

Markos quotes a lovely Wordsworth poem when he talks about creativity within the limits of metrical form. I thought I’d quote it here too–enjoy!

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.




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