Loose Canon: English Literature

For many years, I thought a “loose canon” was actually a loose cannon, that is, a piece of artillery that had gotten away from the gunwale. In fact, the phrase was a disparagement aimed at the inclusion of “arbitrary” or “unworthy” writers in the English literary canon

In this sense, a canon is like unto a set of ecclesiastical codes, canonical Biblical literature for instance. Except, of course, it is more or less secular. Despite the fact that the English Canon isn’t related to the Church of England, it still has its share of “saints”–many of whom are interred in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

How, you might fairly wonder, did a church end up housing literary greats? Excellent question. The answer: more or less by accident at first. Chaucer (Canterbury Tales) was the Clerk of King’s Works in addition to being a poet, and he died nearby in 1400. Ta-da! Not a very auspicious beginning, perhaps. John Gower, a more famous author at the time, was laid to rest in St. Mary Overie in 1408, but that church never quite became the same shrine to literary greatness. Next question: why is that?

Well, this is partly the subject of a class I am teaching at the moment. One of the issues at hand is who decides what is “literature”? It’s a pressing question for many–for instance, is it appropriate to teach a course on a popular author like J. K. Rowling? And during that class, is it appropriate to call her work “literature”? The classical folks would say no, certainly… Edmund Spencer (who was buried in the Abbey’s Poet’s Corner in 1599) worked hard to provide what Andrew Sanders calls a “conscious construction of a Literary tradition”; that is, he helped to establish Chaucer’s reputation (and consequently his own) (2). He also, through his association with Chaucer, built on the idea of succession–almost a kingly line of great authors (at this time that largely meant poets). Popular authors–authors who did not aspire to the high calling of poetry–did not originally have a place either in the Corner or in the Canon. Early representatives were the likes of Spencer (1599), Michael Drayton (1631), Ben Jonson (1637), A. Cowley (1667) and Dryden (1700). In fact, Shakespeare doesn’t get in until after Milton, and is not buried there (a monument was erected in 1674).

And yet, I would guess that Shakespeare is more familiar to most than Cowley or Drayton–Shakespeare was, in fact, popular and even occasionally “low-brow.” His influence has overshadowed many others, and proximity to his memorial was to be much coveted. Samuel Johnson was buried at his feet in 1784, and the Romantic poets Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth have busts installed in his “protective shadow” (3). The question about who decides what is literature is still a murky one, though. Lord Byron was also a Romantic, but was denied admittance because of his “immoral” lifestyle–he didn’t get recognition until 1969. Most non-poets were not allowed in either (because early tradition, which honored classical literature and classical styles, gave poesie preferential status). The first novelist wasn’t interred until 1870–and that was Charles Dickens (who actually left instructions to be buried elsewhere–so much for dying wishes). Women were denied too, of course–though in the 20th century memorials have been added for Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot and others.

So…loose canons? Well, the truth of canon formation–in literature at least–is that it is all more or less arbitrary. Based on popular opinion, contemporary moral traditions (or reservations) and fashionable society–with author elected sometimes by presiding ecclesiastic authority and sometimes by pressure from historical societies or public opinion–the Literary Canon is really not so different from a gunwale gone full tilt. A series of decisions lacking the formal study we might suppose; a pseudo-science of list making… tradition holds up the canon, only to be held up by it later on. Who decides what goes in? The same forces than decide what constituted the truth of history–that is, the ones in power. Canon building is much like empire building, and so we should not be surprised to find that the early English Canon was very much about the power and privilege of England as a nation.

Of course, the excellent thing about loose canons is that they tend to change with the times (slowly, I’ll concede). Here int he 21st century, we see a steadily widening circle of literature–a proliferation that can sometimes be maddening (English Lit, American Lit, Post-Colonial Lit, Diaspora Lit, Transatlantic Lit, Caribbean Lit, African Lit, Feminist Lit…etc.) That can be daunting in itself. It can be freeing, too.

I leave, therefore, with two points: First, I do believe there are works of great literature–and that there are great masters. But of course, I also believe that everything is contextual and so a product of time and place… and so as time and place changes, there will be different sorts of “greats.” The frustrating and “arbitrary” nature of the canon does not make me want to pitch it out the window… the steady proliferation of new texts added does not make me want to give up. You might say I find myself relatively comfortable with the mess of it all; we are given the splendid opportunity to know the old and the new, to pick up inspiration where we find it, and not to be intimidated by the fact that there is no more room in Poet’s Corner for anyone.


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