Friday 19 July 2013

Why Shakespeare is the greatest writer of English - Quotable AND Smooth (Prosy and Poetic)


Most of the most quotable writers of English were prosy writers (even if not actually writing prose) - e.g. Bacon, Sam Johnson, Wilde, Shaw - and most of the most poetic writers are not very quotable - Sidney, Spenser, Tennyson...

I think it is distinctive to Shakespeare - and perhaps that which sets him above all others - that he is both: as smooth and musical as Spenser, as pithy and gnomic as Bacon.

(Other writers who combine poeticism and prosiness in this way stand next in line to Shakespeare - for example Chaucer.)



dearieme said...

Given that it seems to be accepted now that the Authorised Version is mostly Tyndale's work, isn't he a pretty good competitor? Or are you excluding translations? If so, why?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I agree.

I've said it before, and here it is again:

William Tyndale is the SECOND GREATEST WRITER in (modern - i.e. post-Middle) English

In the above, I named Tyndale, Coverdale, Cranmer - to which could be added Lancelot Andrewes - but of these Tyndale was the greatest and most influential.

dearieme said...

And for the twentieth century? Orwell's collected essays and journalism are pretty impressive, and he wrote Animal Farm too. Strong contender, I'd say. But strictly prose.

Wodehouse approaches poesy at times.

Larkin and Amis wrote both poetry and prose: wotcha think of them?

dearieme said...

How stupid of me; I've just realised who you are bound to nominate for C20.

Wm Jas said...

You consider Tennyson not quotable? In my experience, people quote him all the time. Nature red in tooth and claw, theirs was not to reason why, better to have loved and lost,...

stephen c said...

Tennyson is super quotable but I never get the feeling that his hundred or so most famous quotations reveal as much as one would expect (from someone so well educated) about his soul or his life here on earth.....
As good as Tyndale is, wouldn't it be true that the Hebrews whom he adapted from probably were even better; and God being as generous as we know him to be, wouldn't an island as big as Great Britain have a few word-inclined lads as good as some of the better Hebrews?
not that any of this will matter to anyone once they have had a long conversation or two in heaven ...

Bruce Charlton said...

OK - I admit Tennyson was not a good example of an unquoted poet.

But it is extraordinary how little interest he evokes among modern people compared with Milton and Wordsworth (who are those that, conventionally, rank above him) when many lower ranked poets are of great interest.

The biggest decline in poetic reputation is, however, Byron - but that is easier to understand, because Byron was mediocre qua poet - he was the Sartre of his era.

Wm Jas said...

Byron was an extraordinarily skilled poet on a technical level, and he was not without insight. But he was a fundamentally unserious person; at the end of the day, he just didn't mean much of what he wrote.

dearieme said...

I never rated Milton, though I'll grant you at least one fine start to a poem:

AVENGE, O Lord, thy slaughtered Saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I don't personally respond to Milton - but he is generally ranked second to The Bard, and I can see why even if I don't feel it.

@WmJas - It might be interesting to explore the very fallible judgments of the early Romantic era - Byron and 'Ossian' were regarded as first rate.

But the preceding era was dominated by Pope and Dryden, neither of which I find particularly convincing as poets - their work seems both contrived (lacking in genuine poetry) and monotonous (the heroic couplet is terribly tedious) .