Wednesday 8 August 2012

Who is second to Shakespeare: Prose and Drama


In a recent post:

the discussion established that in English poetry the authors which comes after Shakespeare are Chaucer, (+/- Spenser), Milton and Wordsworth.

I'd like to do the same now for prose and drama.

1. English Prose: This is easy - there are only two books of prose with comparable impact to Shakespeare: the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible (King James Bible).

So, the second-best prose writers to Shakespeare in English Prose are Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, Myles Coverdale and various other collaborators.

But if the fact that the second greatest writers of English prose are translators and a (kind-of) committee (albeit divinely inspired) is hard to stomach, then it gets much harder to identify a second placed writer.

I would put forward Samuel Johnson.

2. English Drama: This is easy - aside from Shakespeare there is only one dramatist in the English language who is productive and quotable enough to stand near him: George Bernard Shaw.



dearieme said...

Oscar gets a lot of quotes too. And if you want a really cold, bleak view of humanity, you should watch the dramas-with-tunes by G & S.

But really, there's no one within a million miles of Will, so there's little point in picking who comes second.

dearieme said...

I don't share your revulsion at rewarding a committee, but if I did I'd nominate Gibbon as the second best writer of prose.

Thursday said...

1. Prose: the KJV, the BCP, and Johnson are good choices. Harold Bloom thinks Jonathan Swift is the greatest prose writer since Shakespeare and that Samuel Richardson is the greatest novelist in English. I'm not so sure about that last one. I would nominate Dickens among the novelists. That's about it for prose.

2. Drama: Ben Jonson is the only English dramatist anywhere close to Shakespeare. Shaw was productive and popular, but he's a very minor writer.

Thursday said...

The major English poets are:

Hart Crane
Robert Penn Warren

But English also has a extraordinary richness of almost great poets:

Lewis Carroll
T.S. Eliot
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Bishop
May Swenson
Theodore Roethke
James Merrill
Geoffrey Hill
Derek Walcott
Seamus Heaney
Les Murray
Henri Cole
Anne Carson
Daryl Hine

Thursday said...

For novelists:

Charlotte Bronte
Emily Bronte
George Eliot
Henry James
Nathaniel West
Flannery O'Connor (short stories only)
Philip Roth
Cormac McCarthy

Thursday said...


Robert Burton
Samuel Johnson
Edmund Burke
William James
Kenneth Burke
G.W. Knight
William Empson
Northrop Frye

Thursday said...

English Drama is fairly weak in quantity. I'd only put Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, and Wilde as major dramatists.

It is hard to fit a satirist like Jonathan Swift into any of these categories, but he's certainly a major writer. Maybe Evelyn Waugh too, but only for Scoop.

I should have included Larkin and Auden among the almost great poets. I haven't read Langland, who I know is one of your favourites.

Some people say good things about Malory's Arthur book, but I haven't read it.

I may have missed something here or there, but that's pretty much the best of English lit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - I love G&S - but would class them with music rather than writing. (Music trumps words - why that should be I don't know, but it does.) Oscar Wilde I know very well too - but he didn't write enough top class work in any specific genre - one great play isn't enough. Gibbons is a plausible choice except that - compared with Johnson - virtually nobody reads him.

@Thursday - I want to keep the numbers small to keep the game interesting - and I do not believe that either literary critics or literary historians should provide the standard - but the historical consensus of educated lay readers - the 'middle brow' reader.

Thus I would firmly reject Ben Jonson because none of his plays are in the theatrical repertoire (except for subsidized theatre, which does not count). Dryden likewise, and Wilde only wrote one good play. Care to try again?

And as a novelist - Richardson is likewise unread outside of college courses. Swift is a good idea, except that nobody reads him either - except when compelled to - or do they? And is he quoted in the way that Johnson is?

You could mention Thoreau's Walden - which I regard as superb prose and has the advantage of being spontaneously read by vast numbers of people throughout the world. Perhaps it is the *only* piece of non-fiction prose so read - and is (with some bits from the journals and 'the Week') quite widely quoted.

Other middle brow favorites are GK Chesterton and C.S Lewis.

As a novelist it is hard to decide - but I would not quibble with Dickens, although I don't myself like him.

But Tolkien is head and shoulders the supreme fiction writer (not novelist) of the twentieth century and is becoming so often quoted as to be almost proverbial.

Wm Jas said...

No one's mentioned P. G. Wodehouse?

Thursday said...

the historical consensus of educated lay readers

I would disagree. It is the poets, novelists, and prose writers themselves who are the best judge of these sorts of things. Ben Jonson for example is a live influence on the excellent Robert Pinsky, a very good poet and a genuine success as poet laureate of the U.S. And a standard that would exclude say Dante's Paradiso, not exactly a favourite of the middlebrows, is not a particularly good one.

I am ok with excluding Ben Jonson and John Dryden from the theatre, but a good number of their plays make fine reading, so they belong somewhere in the top ranks of English literature.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - "It is the poets, novelists, and prose writers themselves who are the best judge of these sorts of things. "

I don't believe that you really believe that! It would make for a hermetically sealed 'professional' (in the bad sense) world of artists pleasing artists pleasing artists - and with no interest, relevance or value for anybody else.

This has been the reality in modern classical music since about 1960, if not earlier. It is a world which has led to the top composers (in the UK) being the likes of Sir Harrison Birtwistle CH - whose work is typical in terms of being incomprehensible cacophony to the non-professional musician.

No - art must be integrated with an educated public, else it stops being art and becomes a glass bead game. In a nutshell art must be beautiful.

Thursday said...

Being beautiful does not exclude difficulty, which of necessity excludes most middlebrow readers. A canonical standard which prefers Wodehouse, Kipling, and Gilbert and Sullivan, good as they may be, to say the Paradiso, Gongora and John Donne is not a standard worth having. Popularity among the middlebrows is an extremely erratic guide to quality.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle's work will doubtless be forgotten by future composers as the "next big thing" comes up, so I'm not really sure he qualifies as a counterexample. That sort of stuff is written for the moment and doesn't really form a tradition.

dearieme said...

Not read Gibbon? No wonder the country is going to the dogs.

Thursday said...

One also has to distinguish the best poets, novelists, composers themselves from the artistic establishment. That indeed has an erratic record for picking good stuff, not just now, but in past ages too.

Thursday said...

The reason Richardson isn't read probably has something to do with the fact that his novel is 2000 pages long with little plot to keep it moving. That says nothing about the quality of the writing. In an age without television and all the other distractions in the world he could get away with that. Not now. But people like Samuel Johnson (who said that Clarissa is "the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart"), Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt, Jean Jacques Rousseau, E.M. Forster and Harold Bloom have all held him in great esteem. I think we should pay them some heed, though that doesn't necessarily mean he is at the very top.

Thursday said...

I don't There must be some connection with ordinary readers to keep the whole thing going. Ordinary reader reads Jane Austen. Ordinary reader preads her popularity. Aspiring novelist reads Jane Austen, recognizes the high quality, and then maybe reads some things about her and finds out her favourite novelists were Richardson and Fielding. Reads and likes them, along with much else of the novelistic tradition. Then the aspiring novelist writes a novel that captures at least some audience and the whole cycle goes on. But the ordinary reader seems to functions something like a mediator between the artists themselves and their judgment doesn't seem to much affect canon formation in the long run.

Substitute C.S. Lewis for Jane Austen and Milton and Dante for Richardson and Fielding and the story is much the same. Lewis would think you were completely bonkers to rank him with Milton and Dante, though the Narnia books are certainly more popular with middlebrow readers than Paradise Lost and the Paradiso.

dearieme said...

What about the great writers who happen to write badly? Carlyle, for example. Dickens too in my view (excepting a Tale of Two Cities, which is rather good).

And what about genre writers? The best writer of advocacy I've read is Darwin.

What about one-hit wonders? Vanity Fair is a cracker. The Confessions of a Justified Sinner is another - even better.

What about writers that some people rate but are actually stinkers? D H Lawrence, I'd say.

Thursday said...

I have been thinking about this today, and it really does seem that there has to be a ground of middlebrow readers who read/listen/appreciate some stuff that is at least pretty good stuff. That needs to be there in order to start and keep the whole process going. But that middlebrow reading public tends to point to a more elite group of readers, mainly the artists themselves, that make the real decisions as to greatness. In other words it matters more to the Paradiso's greatness that Petrarch, Leopardi, Shelley, Tennyson, Yeats, Eliot, Heaney et al. have been influenced by it than the fact that it is essentially unread by the general reading public. But you are right that at some point at least one of those writers, or someone they in turn influence, has to connect with some sort of broader readership in order to get the whole process going.

Nergol said...

Also, if we are including non-English works (as some here are), we must mention Bulgakov, whose The Master and Margarita is perhaps the most powerful and moving piece of Christian literature ever written outside of the New Testament itself. As both a narrative and as a Christian apologia, it is so profoundly nuanced, beautiful, and fearless that it makes Tolkien and Lewis seem clunky by comparison.

dearieme said...

Hold on. Thursday put Yeats above Toilets.
Yet he has the good taste to mention Les Murray. How odd.

I've just remembered that I started a Henry James recently. Add to the Carlyle and Dickens class, I'd say.

dearieme said...

On prose: Somerset Maugham wrote well, and in a demanding discipline. What about the essays by Addison and Steele?

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - I used to be very keen on Addison and Steele, and carried around a pocket volume selected from the Spectator - although I went against consensus in preferring Steele.

An interesting figure is Oliver Goldsmith - he wrote very little - but this included one of the canonical enduring plays - She Stoops to Conquer, a famous long poen in the Deserted Village, and a minor classic novel in The Vicar of Wakefield.

This is rather similar to Widle's achievement - one great play (Earnest), a fine long poem (Ballad of Reading Gaol), a couple of really good fairy tales (e.g. Selfish Giant) and plenty of excellent essays.

Sam Johnson was a bit like this with major essays, one excellent novel (Rasselas), major criticism, the dictionary.

I suppose this category could be called 'Men of Letters'.

As a general rule, essays ('Belle Lettres') are perhaps my favourite literary genre, above novels, plays and poetry - just shows what a pedestrian character I am, I suppose.

Wurmbrand said...

Does anyone read Charles Lamb any more?

Wurmbrand said...

The Victorian novelist Mrs. Gaskell (she is now published as Elizabeth Gaskell) is worth reading. Star with Counsin Phillis, and then, if you like that novella, read her full-length novel Wives and Daughters. She has exceptional feeling for character as it develops in the context of family and town. But readers who read simply to find out what happens next might be bored.

Wurmbrand said...

...I should say that by recommending Gaskell I meant to draw attention to a good novelist who is sometimes overlooked. Her prose is well adapted to her purpose, and wouldn't be striking simply sampled for its "beauties."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I have had a spell of reading Charles Lamb (essays) devotedly and frequently - at the same time I was reading Addison and Steele. Very fine, and very sad.

Anonymous said...

Drama: Christopher Marlowe. It seems odd and worthy of note that he and Jonson (who I've never read) and Shakespeare all lived in the same time.
I'm a partisan of Gibbon as well. I've never read a book so long that was so much a pleasure to read.

Bruce Charlton said...

Re: Gibbons. I just don't see him as having the same kind of impact as Sam Johnson - his prose style is wonderful but seems unquotable, for one thing.