Reasons to Study English Literature: Pleasure

The first in a new series for A level students on which I have been musing for a while. More to follow.  

Those who have suffered my lessons will know that pleasure in reading is rarely something I discuss. Far more likely, I am to be found suggesting (even more likely, pontificating) that texts are political, philosophical or spiritual in their significance.  But at the core of English Literature is the notion of pleasure. Whilst we as English teachers and graduates in the subject enjoy a good debate – and often like nothing more than to disagree with each other – we’re pretty united in this: in some way, the study of literature is linked to pleasure.

There have been times when I have quite forgotten this. At university, when trying to read the works of George Elliot in a week and simultaneously master the intricacies of T.S. Elliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, English seemed stripped of pleasure. With some lecturers, George Elliot was nothing to do with memorable characters or the perfect evocation of Victorian provincial life, but a textbook in gender studies. With others, the spiritual significance of T.S. Elliot was dismissed, and he was to be despised for his politics. In such circumstances, my friends’ Biology textbooks became strangely alluring.

But let’s say this very loudly: English Literature is about pleasure. Our greatest and deepest encounters are pleasurable, and literature can be every bit as moving and all embracing as listening to music, being lost in the world of a great film or absorbed by a moving stage play.

Pleasure often starts in with the language of the text. Perhaps you have admired the ingenuity of a writer. Jonathan Swift is such an author. Wit really is his trade. A Tale of a Tub is an amazingly clever satire on the religious arguments of the seventeenth century, with profound points of doctrine morphed into an argument about three brothers squabbling over the cut of their coats.  But its pleasure is passing; once read and once one has admired Swift’s wit, there is little to discuss, except whether Swift’s desire to prove his own cleverness finally got the better of him.

More memorable is his Modest Proposal, which never fails to shock in its coldly rational discussions of infanticide, but which also starts to move the reader, for beneath the ingenuity and twisted logic of Swift’s argument lies a deep, burning anger at the injustices of poverty in Ireland. It’s every bit as clever – perhaps even cleverer than A Tale – but it leaves a lasting impression.  Few of us can forget the first time we encountered the actual proposal – the shock, the revulsion, the sheer logic.

Yet it is when language is infused with emotion then we as readers start to enter a world of pleasure. Each year, when I teach Year 8, I am taken aback by the sheer joy and pleasure of reading  A Christmas Carol.  Forget for a moment any political reading of the novel – though, of course, this being a fundamentally spiritual tale it is incontestably political (God and politics are the best mixture imaginable for discussion) – the experience of the novel starts with pleasure. Perhaps we might relish the grotesque caricature of Scrooge in Chapter 1, the evocation of a bitterly cold old London town or the dark humour of Scrooge’s reactions to his nephew Fred, Bob Cratchit. And nothing beats the joy of Stave 5, when the repentant, redeemed Scrooge realises the errors of his way and resolves to celebrate Christmas like never before.

On a much more profound level, however, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel which meditates on the nature of beauty itself; the narrator Nick Carraway even goes so far as to tells us that Gatsby ‘sprung from his own Platonic conception of himself’.  I initially studied the novel as a Year 10. It was the first book I read for GCSE, and – in those more liberal days when coursework really was a doddle and constituted 100% of the course – I remember an imaginative project by way of response; we were asked to produce a ‘Film Dosier’ on the novel, devising scripts for important scenes, writing character notes and planning sets. It was one of my most pleasurable pieces of English work ever (sorry, kids, but these days if you want an A* these days you can forget such ideas!). But what got me about Fitzgerald was the beauty of his writing, which in turn led to an encounter with the emotional world of the novel, an experience which has deepened through re-reading the text several times at university and as a teacher.

When I write of beauty in Gatsby, it needs to be understood on two levels. There is the superficial, materialistic pandering of Gatsby: his expensive and expansive parties (from which he strangely absents himself); his endless pursuit of modern technology (he owns both a seaplane and the latest car) and his crass taste (the reconstruction of the library from Merton College). At times, this crosses over into a much truer conception of beauty, when for example, Daisy weeps over his shirts, ‘such beautiful shirts’, but there are moments of an almost elemental beauty which underpin the novel, based on a Romantic notion of beauty, and it is this deeper beauty which brings deep pleasure to the reader. In its structure, for example, there is a sense of the rhythms of nature unfolding, as we move from high summer through to the autumn.

Throughout, though, it is the sheer beauty of Fitzgerald’s style which shines: Gatbsy’s heart is ‘a constant, turbulent riot’, whilst much of the prose becomes almost mythical or elemental in its power to evoke. So to the end of the novel. It’s something of a panegyric – a hymn of praise – to the interminable human spirit, but also a pointer to the notion of beauty and a poetic discourse on the tragedy of human longings. It happens to be amongst my favourite passages ever …

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferry across the  Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once here for Dutch sailors’ eyes – the fresh, green breast of the new world…

Copyright stops me quoting the whole passage, but the whole of the last chapter of The Great Gatsby merits re-reading!

Nonetheless, whilst The Great Gatsby is undoubtedly poetic, it is, I would argue, that in poetry that our pleasure in literature is at its most intense. And, supremely, we witness this in the sumptuous Romanticism of Keats who begins his epic Endymion in the most memorable of ways: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever;/Its loveliness increases’. There is, for example, the sensual overload of ‘To a Nightingale’, a poem which the ‘loveliness increases’ over time. Keats plays with, then rejects, the alluring temptations to escape the pains of his tortured life – ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’-  through alcohol or narcotics. Then,  alone in a garden at night, the poet is overwhelmed by the pleasure of the garden around him and the power of the imagination. ‘Tender is the night’, he muses, a phrase Fitzgerald himself was to use.  He sees not what ‘soft incense hangs on the boughs’ but in the ’embalmed darkness’ guesses the sweet fragrances of the ‘musk rose’, ‘the grass’, ‘the thicket’, ‘the white hawthorn’. The pleasure is Keats’, but through language, the reader shares in this experience, and it is imbued with a significance or meaning. To echo Ezra Pound, it is ‘language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’. A moment of intense pleasure, experienced by the poet, is shared.

Indeed, Keats’ poetry, like much Romantic verse, is based on the power of feelings. Of course, it has meaning, and anyone who has studied Keats will know how he wrestles with weighty matters such as the nature of the imagination, time and mortality. But his method of writing echoes William Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

For me, ‘To Autumn’ is a good example of this process at work. The genesis of the poem was in a riverside walk Keats took on a Sunday afternoon in September 1819 near Winchester. Keats was impressed by the beauty of the season, and found himself contemplating the picturesque landscape. It was not a grand or majestic vista – rather the simple beauties of stubble fields which moved him.  Keats wrote the poem in a matter of days – but it was ’emotion recollected in tranquility’, rather than being written at the time of the walk (though I suspect that like most writers Keats had that intense inner voice, always seeking to phrase his experiences and thoughts, running as he walked). Yet through the poem, the intense experience of the beauty of the walk is created both for Keats as a writer and us as readers, such as in the opening stanza and the first line of ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Within this one phrase we experience Keats’ love of nature as he directly addresses Autumn almost as a goddess, but also the gentleness of the scene, through the soft sibilance of the language. Yet there are also ideas of time and maturity, perhaps even of fertility, in these opening words. Experiencing Keats’ pleasure is not instantaneous – like so much poetry, the pleasure grows over time – as we absorb, meditate and reflect.

Today, however, our tastes seem based increasingly on the trivial, the banal, the instantly gratifying. We praise novels and films for their power to shock or their abusive language; we seek out plays which ‘push the boundaries’. Let’s not pretend that neither the unexpected nor the unsettling are not powerful tools in the repertoire of the writer. But perhaps we ought to ponder whether these ought to be the qualities by which we judge literature, or by which we develop a notion of taste. Paul, one of the first Christian writers, encouraged his readers like this:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is excellent – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. (Philippians 4:8, TNIV) 

Keats himself remarked in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’.

Pleasure in reading rests on an emotional connection with the text, and the text becomes true for us. In some way, writing must touch our emotions, and not just our thoughts. Whether it is in the joy and despair of Gerald Manley Hopkins or the spiritual wrangling of George Herbert or John Donne, until we as readers in some way connect with the emotional landscape inhabited by the writer, studying such works is but a dry and academic affair. Perhaps, then, there is a challenge to teachers. In some way, we ought to strip ourselves of our intellectual and dryly academic approach, our carving up of poems into techniques and the aberration that is York Notes, and let the text speak deeply to us.