B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
The Canterbury Tales 
Chaucer is one of the most delightful and most human authors who ever lived. Many of his tales, purportedly told by a group of people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, are drawn from Boccaccios Decameron. What distinguishes The Canterbury Tales from The Decameron, and from every other story collection up till that time, is that the characters who tell the stories are vividly differentiated. Their stories reflect their personalities, backgrounds, occupations and relations with each other, and there is constant interplay among them, making for a far more complex array of perspectives. With typical good-natured irony, Chaucer presents himself (the narrator) as the most inept storyteller among them.
I encourage you to try reading Chaucer in the original Middle English. Its not that hard once you get used to it, and the modern translations are nowhere near as good. The recent Everyman edition is convenient because it includes both footnotes and sidenotes (so you dont have to keep turning to a glossary in the back). If you do get a translation, try to find one that has the original on facing pages.
[Rexroth essay on Chaucer]
Thomas Malory, Le Morte dArthur 
This is the most vigorous version of the Arthurian legends. Malorys original text is available in the Oxford Classics (ed. Eugène Vinaver), but there are also many modernized versions and abridgments.
R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood [ca. 14th-17th centuries]
A selection of the greatest Robin Hood ballads, with an examination of the origin and development of the legend.
Other recent studies, each with conflicting theories about this intriguing topic, include J.C. Holts Robin Hood, Phillips and Keatmans Robin Hood: The Man Behind the Myth, and several volumes authored or edited by Stephen Knight.
For the many other traditional British ballads, see Francis James Childs The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (five volumes; one-volume abridgment by Sargent & Kittredge). There are numerous recordings. The unaccompanied ones are usually the best and most authentic.
[Rexroth essay on the English and Scottish popular ballads]
William Shakespeare, Selected Plays [1564-1616]
More has been written about Shakespeares works than about any other book except the Bible. Much of it is quite interesting, but the sheer mass of adulation may be more of a hindrance than a help. Best just to read his plays (and when possible, see them) without being intimidated by all the hype. Once you get used to the slightly archaic language they’re not that hard to follow. They were popular among the illiterate masses of his day and continue to be so today. Still, so much happens so fast in the live performances that when you know you will be seeing one it is a good idea to read it ahead of time, preferably in an edition with good footnotes explaining obscure words and phrases.
Of his thirty-eight or so plays, these are among the most deservedly popular: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2), Richard III, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest.
Once you get into Shakespeare you are likely to want to know more. There are numerous biographies; Peter Levi’s The Life and Times of William Shakespeare is a pretty good recent one; another with more emphasis on the connection with his plays and the theater of his time is Lois Potter’s The Life of William Shakespeare. Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives examines and refutes a great variety of previous interpretations over the last four centuries, including the more or less lunatic notions that the works were actually written by Francis Bacon and/or others. James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? refutes these latter fantasies in more detail. Virtually all competent scholars agree that there is no serious question that Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems that are attributed to him, but the relatively little that is known about his personal life still leaves room for lots of tantalizing questions. Many people have happily spent their lives studying him and his works, following up countless tangents, social, psychological, aesthetic, historical. Was he secretly a Catholic? A bisexual? Who were the male dedicatees of many of the Sonnets? Did Hamlet have an Oedipus complex? Was Richard III framed? (See Josephine Teys mystery novel The Daughter of Time, which suggests that he may have been given bad press simply because he was on the losing side of a dynastic civil war.) . . .
[Rexroth article on Shakespeare]
Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler 
You dont have to like fishing to like this charming little book. Its real appeal is its quiet, lucid style, which conduces to the same sort of quiet, lucid state of mind you get by sitting beside a quietly flowing body of water.
[Rexroth essay on The Compleat Angler]
John Bunyan, The Pilgrims Progress 
Although it is marred for us by its harsh Biblical worldview, Pilgrims Progress is nevertheless a truly wonderful book. The characters, despite their allegorical names, are more vivid than in almost any novel. If you make a little mental adjustment, the book does not seem all that dated. We are still living in a world full of Cities of Destruction and Vanity Fairs, struggling over the Hill Difficulty and through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, hoping to eventually find our way to the Delectable Mountains, but meanwhile coming upon characters like Mr. Talkative, Madam Bubble, Mr. Hypocrite, Mr. Pliable, Mr. Legality, Mr. Malice, Mr. Money-love, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Parson Two-tongues, Lord Fair-speech and Lady Feigning, but occasionally also a Miss Mercy or Mr. Great-heart. Bernard Shaw said that Bunyan was “England’s greatest prose writer” and that Pilgrims Progress was better than Shakespeare. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much.
[Rexroth essay on Pilgrims Progress]
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe 
Samuel Johnson said there were only three books that most readers wished were longer: Don Quixote, Pilgrims Progress and Robinson Crusoe. It is interesting to note that each of these in its own way portrays life as a journey (as do a notable number of other great narratives, from The Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn). In Defoes book the journey gives rise to a unique archetypal situation, one that fascinates readers the moment they are confronted with it. It is not a matter of returning to nature on the contrary, much of the book is concerned with Crusoes efforts to recreate as far as possible the amenities of a middle-class English lifestyle. But by putting him in this drastically isolated situation, the book implicitly suggests all sorts of basic questions. What would you do if you were all alone in the world? Who or what would you miss most of all? What are the minimal essentials of life? What are your priorities?
Readers are so caught up in Crusoes story that they scarcely notice another remarkable quality of the book: its plain, seemingly amateur style of narration. Defoe planned it that way so that you would not even think about the author, but imagine that Crusoe was telling his own story. The same is true of most of Defoes other books, of which the best is Moll Flanders, the purported memoirs of a London prostitute.
[Rexroth essays on Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders]
Jonathan Swift, Gullivers Travels 
Yet another archetypical journey book, and the most consistently brilliant satire ever written. Much more funny, in a bitter sort of way, than you may remember if you only read a childrens version when you were a kid. Swifts picture of humanity is not pretty, but it is good for us to face it.
You can find some of his other writings, including the notorious A Modest Proposal, in The Portable Swift and various other collections. There is an excellent recent biography by Leo Damrosch.
[Rexroth essay on Gullivers Travels]
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones 
The plot of this witty and lusty novel is one of the most perfect in fiction, but it is made even more interesting by Fieldings periodically stepping back from the narration to give his own tongue-in-cheek comments on the events.
[Rexroth essay on Tom Jones]
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy 
This is another of those books that no one would have predicted. In the middle of a century ostensibly characterized by order, formality, objectivity, rationality and moderation, a provincial parson comes up with a seemingly formless narrative full of subjectivity, sentimentality and every manner of oddity and excess. Pages are blank. Chapters break off after a few sentences. There is scarcely any plot. Something starts to happen, but the narrator wanders off on a tangent, and then another and another, and often does not get back to the original point until several chapters later. He does not even manage to get to his own birth until nearly half way through the book, and is only an infant by the time it comes to an end. Much of the book is presented through stream-of-consciousness (more than a century before Joyce and Woolf) and the characters thoughts are full of odd, incoherent and embarrassing sorts of things just like real peoples are:
My young master in London is dead! said Obadiah.
A green satin night-gown of my mothers which had been twice scoured, was the first idea which Obadiahs exclamation brought into Susannahs head.Well might Locke write a chapter upon the imperfections of words.Then, quoth Susannah, we must all go into mourning.But note a second time: the word mourning, notwithstanding Susannah made use of it herself, failed also of doing its office; it excited not a single idea, tinged either with grey or black,all was green.The green satin night-gown hung there still.
O! twill be the death of my poor mistress, cried Susannah.My mothers whole wardrobe followed. . . .
Time stands still as the characters positions and gestures are described:
He was alive last Whitsuntide! said the coachman.Whitsuntide! alas! cried Trim, extending his right arm, and falling instantly into the same attitude in which he read the sermon [forward at an angle of 85.5 degrees],What is Whitsuntide, Jonathan (for that was the coachmans name), or Shrovetide, or any tide or time past, to this? Are we not here now, continued the corporal (striking the end of his stick perpendicularly upon the floor, so as to give an idea of health and stability)and are we not(dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!
The narrator goes on to discuss the ramifications of that last gesture for
two more pages!
Yet throughout all this seemingly chaotic narration the characters are being revealed with a whimsical but ultimately compassionate humor. The astonishing narrative innovations are what first strike the reader, but those characters and that good humor are what continue to make this book loved as well as admired.
[Rexroth essay on Tristram Shandy]
Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne 
Amateur natural history by an eighteenth-century country clergyman. Like The Compleat Angler, this is as much a literary classic as a scientific one, beloved for over two centuries for its sensitive observations and genial tone.
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 
This is widely considered the greatest biography ever written, both because of the richness of its subject and the innovative manner of its narration. Much of it consists of Johnsons conversations, responding to questions by Boswell or skewering others with the witty putdowns that have made Johnson one of the most quoted persons in history.
I also enjoy the earnest vigor and keen reasoning of Johnsons own writings, though he is strongly conservative in most regards and his formal style may be an acquired taste for many present-day readers. The Portable Johnson and Boswell presents a good introductory selection of both authors. If you become sufficiently intrigued, there is an excellent modern biography of Johnson by W. Jackson Bate, which looks at this off-putting yet strangely endearing individual from a number of rather different angles than does Boswell.
Boswell himself, formerly disparaged as a mere chronicler of Johnson, has attracted increasing attention in his own right, particularly since the dramatic discovery of a trunkful of his long-lost personal journals. Among other things, those journals reveal an erotic side that Boswell suppressed when he was in the respectable company of Johnson and friends. If youre interested, try the first volume, Boswells London Journal. If you like it, youre in luck: the complete series comes to 13 volumes!
Robert Burns, Poems and Songs [1759-1796]
Sentimental romantic and bawdy bon vivant, spirited satirist and stalwart radical, Burns was and remains a truly popular poet and personality, not only in Scotland but all over the world. Theres nothing obscure about his poems except for some of the Scottish dialect words (try to find an edition that has the annotations alongside the poems, so you dont have to keep turning to the glossary).
Burns also edited a pioneering collection of Scottish folksongs, and wrote over three hundred songs of his own to many of those same heartbreakingly lovely Celtic tunes. There are numerous recordings. I recommend most highly Jean Redpaths versions (a seven-LP series, now reissued on four CDs).
William Blake, Poems [1757-1827]
Blake had a holistic vision of liberation, a vision of a community of persons who were integrated physically, psychologically and spiritually. In some of his works this unity seems already present. In others, the various mythological figures he invented represent different aspects of the human psyche, struggling with each other and hopefully ultimately arriving at some sort of synthesis or reconciliation.
His antirationalism is sometimes rather silly, but I think it should be understood as an intentionally provocative challenge to the complacent, superficial rationalism of his time a rationalism which was not only a reflection of spiritual poverty, but part of the veneer covering a system of social and economic alienation of which Blake was very much aware.
His vision is spiritual, but it is emphatically not apolitical. Blake was a social revolutionary one of the more consistent and intransigent of his time (while many of his contemporaries eventually gave in to resignation or reaction). Several books demonstrate this beyond any question: David Erdmans Blake: Prophet Against Empire, J. Bronowskis William Blake and the Age of Revolution, Michael Ferbers The Social Vision of William Blake, E.P. Thompsons Witness Against the Beast.
There are many complete and selected editions of Blakes works. Read at least the Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, preferably in an edition that include Blakes original engravings (he was a visionary artist as well as poet). If youre intrigued enough to venture into the more difficult and obscure Prophetic Books, it would be a good idea to consult one or more of the many studies and commentaries by Northrop Frye, S. Foster Damon, Mark Schorer, Kathleen Raine, Peter Ackroyd, etc. You may also enjoy Alex Comforts Tetrarch, a fantasy novel set in the lands of Blakes mythology.
[Rexroth’s Classics Revisited essay on Blake]
[Another Rexroth essay on Blake]
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers; David Copperfield [1837, 1850]
We read David Copperfield together in our ninth-grade English class. By the drastically dumbed-down standards of today, it would probably be considered rather challenging even for college students, but back then even the most ignorant highschoolers didnt find it particularly difficult, and most of them enjoyed it. In addition to its remarkable range of odd and memorable characters, its probably the first book to give a really good childs-eye view of things, and is thus the ancestor of many other works we now take for granted, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye.
The Pickwick Papers is Dickenss other unique contribution to world literature. Like Don Quixote, its a seemingly endless rambling journey of a pair of innocent and good-natured companions through a world that is not always so innocent or benign, but which is to a certain extent transformed by their amiable interventions.
The nineteenth century was the great age of the novel, and nowhere more so than in England. However, with the exception of Dickens at his best, the British novelists do not seem to me to be quite on the level of their greatest French and Russian counterparts. They lack the sophisticated irony of Stendhal, the worldly wisdom of Balzac, the aesthetic rigor of Flaubert, the psychological depth of Dostoyevsky, the broad magnanimity of Tolstoy, the quiet subtlety of Chekhov. And they tend to be more politically naïve (as Rexroth would put it, they fail to see through the Social Lie).
On the positive side, the Victorian novels reflect a notable progress in the prominence of feminine authors and themes. Perhaps connected with this, they also sometimes embody a new, more humane and compassionate sense of community, even if this is usually limited to a narrow, middle-class familial circle.
In any case, many of them are well worth reading. If you want to explore them, here are some you might try: Jane Austens Pride and Prejudice, Emily Brontës Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontës Jane Eyre, William Thackerays Vanity Fair, Anthony Trollopes The Warden, George Eliots Middlemarch, Thomas Hardys Tess of the dUrbervilles, George Merediths The Egoist.
[Rexroth essay on the Victorians]
Lewis Carroll, Alices Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass [1865, 1872]
These marvelous little works surely need no introduction. They are probably the greatest children’s books ever written, but they remain just as fascinating to adults.
I recommend Martin Gardners The Annotated Alice (preferably in the new Definitive Edition) for its explanations of the numerous parodies, in-jokes, logic puzzles, etc., that lie behind the apparent simplicity of the books. There is an excellent recent biography of Carroll by Morton Cohen.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest 
Possibly the most entertaining play ever written.
Anthony Asquiths film version (1953) is also just about perfect.
William Butler Yeats, Poems and Plays [1865-1939]
Yeats was pretty eccentric in some ways and even reactionary, but he was a truly marvelous poet, possibly the greatest of the twentieth century. What is less well known is that he was also a great dramatist particularly in his later plays, which were strongly influenced by Japanese Nô theater.
George Bernard Shaw, Selected Plays and Prefaces [1856-1950]
Shaw was the supreme showman of ideas. His opinions are sometimes rather dubious, but hes almost always both amusing and thought-provoking. Try Caesar and Cleopatra, Major Barbara, Pygmalion and Saint Joan. And be sure to read his prefaces theyre usually just as interesting as the plays.
G.K. Chestertons George Bernard Shaw is superb. I dont usually like Chesterton, but in this case the clash of his reactionary views with Shaws more or less radical ones, tempered by Chestertons very sympathetic attitude toward his friend and frequent debating opponent, creates a truly delightful work.
Joseph Conrad, Nostromo; Victory [1904, 1915]
Nostromo is probably Conrads greatest novel, but Ill also add Victory because I could hardly put it down. I realized only after Id finished it that it is an ironic reworking of Shakespeares The Tempest.
D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love; Selected Poems [1885-1930]
Lawrence is dated in some ways, but I think hes still a very important figure. Whatever his flaws, he deserves credit for his pioneering role in the struggle to get back to the primal realities, to restore the vital, organic connections that have been destroyed by modern capitalism, connections that he hoped would form the basis for a new social community.
Women in Love is probably his greatest novel. If you like it you might also try Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow. Lady Chatterleys Lover is not quite so good, but it is a landmark in the literary expression of sexuality and almost any red-blooded young man or woman will probably want to read it.
Lawrence was also a wonderful poet see his Selected Poems, edited with an introduction by Rexroth.
I also recommend his Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence spent more time working on it than on any of his other books, and it perhaps the most concise expression of his philosophy. There are penetrating insights into Melville, Whitman, etc., and when he tackles (to him) unsympathetic characters like Poe or Ben Franklin he can be hilarious.
[Rexroth essay on D.H. Lawrence]
[Another Rexroth essay on Lawrence]
James Joyce, Ulysses 
Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time are widely considered the two masterworks of twentieth-century literature. Both can be criticized for their self-indulgence, but in their very different ways each gives us a revelation of the virtually infinite variety of experience that lies within even the most humble and alienated life. Proust presents a single individual exploring his memories over the years; Joyce presents the life of three individuals in the city of Dublin within the space of a single day.
Roughly paralleling the plot of The Odyssey, Ulysses is divided into 18 intricately interrelated chapters, each with its own distinct themes and style. Though some of them might seem to be little more than clever tours de force (e.g. the Oxen of the Sun chapter, which is written in successive literary styles from early to modern English), they all in their diverse ways present illuminating slants on the events they are narrating, giving an overwhelming sense of the multiplicity of realities and perspectives involved in modern life. The Aeolus chapter, composed of headlines and terse newspaper-style sentences, highlights both the connections and the disjunctions between the mass media and our actual everyday lives. The hallucinatory Circe chapter, which takes place in a red light district, presents a sort of Freudian emergence of unconscious, dreamlike material into waking life. The Ithaca chapter, consisting of dry questions and technical answers, parodies scientific objectivity. Then we wind down with the marvelous final Penelope chapter, presenting Molly Blooms stream-of-consciousness reveries as she drifts off to sleep.
This is one case where its almost essential to read a good commentary before (or along with) the book itself. I recommend Stuart Gilberts James Joyces Ulysses. Written in close consultation with Joyce, it presents a good general overview followed by a brief discussion of each chapter — by no means exhaustive, but enough so that you’ll have a general sense of what’s going on. Dont worry about the fact that you still wont understand most of the allusions. Some will become clearer later in the book, but most of them are not really essential anyway. Like the tiny tiles in a large mosaic composition, they are simply bits that in their ensemble provide some background resonance, reinforcing the theme of each particular chapter. Joyce is great (when he is great, which is by no means all the time) because he manages to communicate illuminating visions of life, not because of the mass of obscure allusions that he packed into his work and that academics spend years researching and annotating.
Joyces earlier, more or less autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, recounts the youth of Stephen Dedalus, one of the main characters in Ulysses. Its fairly short and not at all hard to follow, so you might want to read it first. His final work, Finnegans Wake, a sort of dream-epic of universal history written in a dense, Jabberwocky-like language, is far more difficult than Ulysses. Few people except the most fanatical Joyceans find it worth the effort necessary to read it with any understanding. Ulysses, I think, is worth the effort.
Ford Madox Ford, Parades End 
Fords most famous novel is The Good Soldier. It is indeed very fine, but fine only like the best of Conrad or Henry James. Parades End is in another class altogether: an opening into life. A friend of mine once told me: You know, I never quite understood what Rexroth meant when he was talking about magnanimity. I just read Parades End and now I understand.
I am also very fond of Fords nonfiction works, particularly his volumes of memoirs and reminiscences (Memories and Impressions, It Was the Nightingale, Return to Yesterday, Your Mirror to My Times). Portraits from Life recounts his experiences with the many other writers with whom he socialized or collaborated Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, etc. The Ford Madox Ford Reader (ed. Sondra Stang) contains a generous sampling of his other writings, which are voluminous and admittedly of uneven quality.
There is an excellent biography by Alan Judd. (Avoid the earlier one by Arthur Mizener, which is a disgusting hatchet job.)
[Rexroth essay on Parades End]
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse; A Room of Ones Own [1925, 1927, 1929]
A Room of Ones Own is an illuminating examination of the reasons that there were relatively few women authors until recent times. Woolf is herself, of course, one of the major writers of the twentieth century. If you arent familiar with her, try one or two of her novels (I suggest Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse).
Herbert Read, The Green Child 
A unique little novel, or maybe it should be called a fable. Perfectly, almost magically narrated. What does it mean? Im not sure I know. See if you can figure it out. In any case, reading it has an intense, exalting effect. Herbert Read wrote lots of essays on art, literature, culture and anarchism that are worth reading, but nothing else quite like this.
Barbara Pym, Novels [1913-1980]
A friend gave me one of Pyms novels and out of politeness to her I agreed to read the first few pages, expecting to find it as uninteresting as I do almost all modern fiction. I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite entertaining in a modest, somewhat old-fashioned kind of way, and went on to read all of her other books. She has often been called a twentieth-century Jane Austen. That is perhaps a slight exaggeration, but if you like the one youll probably like the other.
Try Excellent Women and see if shes your cup of tea.
Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet 
The four volumes of this novelistic investigation of modern love (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) overlap, each covering much of the same territory from different viewpoints. I loved it when I was a teenager. When I recently reread it I was not so enthused, though I noticed many things in it that I had hardly been capable of understanding as an adolescent. The characters no longer seem very convincing, I can no longer take seriously many of their ideas and concerns, and the exotic atmosphere is only too obviously the superficial impression of an outsider (compare the ambiences presented by native Egyptian writers like Albert Cossery or Naguib Mahfouz).
Still, the progressive uncovering of layer upon layer of new perspectives on the characters actions and motivations is as intriguing as a detective story, and if you combine that with the erotic content, the exotic background and the fine writing you have the material for a pretty interesting read.
[Rexroth essay on Lawrence Durrell]
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook 
This remarkable novel consists of an ongoing narrative entitled (with some irony) Free Women, interspersed with extensive passages from the private notebooks of the main character, Anna Wulf. In an effort to sort out the conflicting facets of her life, Anna uses a black notebook to recount her earlier days in southern Africa, a red one to examine her recent experiences in and out of the British Communist Party (during the post-Stalin crises of the 1950s), a yellow one to draft a partially autobiographical novel, and a blue one for a personal diary. As the interplay of these notebooks and her life develops, she finally brings the different strands together in a golden notebook. This is a one of the few modern novels that I think has real substance and originality. Reading it can be an emotionally exhausting experience, but I think its worth it. Not only are many nuances of interpersonal and intersexual relations gone into in a detail found in few, if any, previous fictional works, they are also interwoven with significant psychological and political issues. Even if you are dubious about some of Lessings takes on those issues, I think youll find that you have been confronted with some new perspectives on life.
Try to get an edition that includes Lessings 1971 Introduction.
Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution, by Ken Knabb (2004).
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