Extracts chosen by publisher Nicholas Parsons in his Book of Literary Lists (1985)
Beowulf ‘Admiring comment on its poetry is about as relevant as praise for the architecture of Stonehenge.’
The York Mystery Plays ‘…The Bach St Matthew Passion, Verdi’s Requiem, the Karlskirche in Vienna, and the sculpture of Michelangelo are ( as religious propaganda) a far cry from the cynically concocted doggerel of a committee of drunken monks at St Mary’s Chapel, York in 1350.
The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser ‘…the punishing length, utter confusion and unremitting tedium of Spenser;s contribution serve not only to impress uncreative minds, but to illustrate generally that English literature is not an easy option’.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare ‘…the prototype of Western literature’s most deplorable and most formless form, autobiographical fiction’.
Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’…it is impossible to rate his naïve and fevered imagination any higher than that of the gentlemen who walk through the West End of London with sandwich –board imploring us to flee from the wrath to come’.
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding’(Tom is ) a tom cat of remarkable passivity who has to be seduced of flattered into his series of love affairs and finishes as a jeune premier in a Doris Day musical , married to the girl next door with full parental blessing.’
She Stoops to Conquer, Oliver Goldsmith. ‘ Forever dithering about whether to pick up a scalpel or a powder puff , ( Goldsmith) never found the right instrument to carve out a piece of pure art.’
‘ I wandered lonely as a cloud’ ( ‘The Daffodils’), William Wordsworth ‘ The reason Wordsworth writes of daffodils and clouds as though he had never really set eyes on either of them is that he is essentially a baroque artist, to whom flowers are invisible unless transmuted into precious metals and to whom clouds are merely what sweep apparitions down onto the astounded beholder.’
The Essays of Elia’, Charles Lamb ‘…sentimental conservatism’ ; ‘ Lamb is one of those people ( still richly present among us) who will defend a wrong by appealing to hallowed custom, praising the coloufulness of inequality and ever ready to condemn as ‘ drab’ anything that banishes poverty or child labour.’
The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas de Quincey’…hollow, glib and pompously written…’
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne ‘Hawthorn tacitly called up an army of male prejudice, while putting forward a vulgarly romantic idea of woman ( or rather, Woman) which probably still remains the American dream.’
Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens ‘…the language…is at worst worse than that of a barn-storming trickster, at best that of an anonymous syndicate. This poetaster of cosiness and smug banality has little to offer today.’
The Warden, Anthony Trollope ‘…by writing a plainish porridge-like prose, he seems to avoid the crockets of Victorian gothic; but they’re there all the same’.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte ‘…blatantly such stuff as day-dreams are made on…reading Jane Eyre is like gobbling a jar full of schoolgirl stickjaw’.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte ‘ Playing more shamelessly than any other work of fiction on the pathetic fallacy, it invites English readers to excuse the lack of psychological coherence and emotional truth in its characters by confusing those characters with elemental forces ; and one critic has obediently divided the characters into “ children of storm “ and “ children of calm”.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman ‘ Whitman’s so-called poetry ranges from a simpleton’s idea of Shakespeare and the purpler passages of the Bible to sheer semi-literate sludge
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll ‘…a nice, wholesome, dull book.’
The Golden Treasury, Francis Palgrave ‘…few vaunted treasures have ever held as much dross as Palgrave managed to pack on board —almost enough to sink the unsinkable vessel of English literature …The Golden Treasury is an insult to English literature, not merely emasculated, but misrepresented by Palgrave .
Lorna Doone, R.D.Blackmore ‘ Not even the mawkish love passages are funny enough to disturb the deep tedium of the Exmoor landscape…the book ends with a great daub of technocolour sentimental cruelty—“ I bring her to forgotten sadness, and to me for cure of it.” There they stand, huge man and tiny Lorna Doone at his shoulder, with all their money ( yes, they’re wealthy as well as healthy), ready to take part in any Hollywood historical film that will employ them.’
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain ‘The adolescent dream goes on, lulling the reader into an immature climate where goodness somehow triumphs and yet every tribute is paid to the abstract concept of boyishness. It is a vision that can be achieved only by that ruthless dishonesty which is the birthright of every sentimentalist.’
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’ We are left standing futilely in the soggy wet fields of novels where the earth is the ravaged, bloodstained scene of dreary crimes and appalling mistakes littered with frostbitten decaying vegetables and plentiful corpses.’
Poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins …the poetry of a mental cripple’.
Collected Poems, A. E. Housman ‘…slovenly calendar- verse.’
To be continued…