Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, Andrew Sanders notes, had its start by accident. The first writer entombed there (long before it was known by today's name) was Geoffrey Chaucerso honored not for his works, but because he had lived nearby and had distant connections to the crown. But Chaucer was lionized by future generations, especially by Edmund Spenser, who was the next poet to take his place in the Corner. Over time, more men of letters followed (including Ben Jonson, John Dryden, and Charles Dickens), as England turned this corner of the Abbey into a tribute to its writers. The growth of Poets' Corner, Sanders writes, mirrors the conscious efforts of writers to create the British literary traditionthe physical expression of the emerging canon.
In The Short Oxford History of English Literature, Sanders conducts us on a tour through the living past behind the stone effigies of Poets' Cornercapturing the vast history of the literature of the British isles in a single, fascinating narrative. Starting with the early Anglo-Saxon period, he ranges right up to the present, with individual chapters on Old and Middle English literature, the Renaissance, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Romantics, Victorian and Edwardian Literature, Modernism, and post-war writing. Throughout, the author combines concise analyses of individual works and authors with an overarching sense of how they interacted in a single literary tradition. The dramas of Shakespeare, for example, have long since eclipsed those of his contemporaries Kyd and Marlowe; but Sanders reminds us of the "symbiotic relationship" between the Bard and his rivals, especially Marlowe. He goes on to crisply assess the interaction of Shakespeare's plays with the politics and emerging nationalism of the period. Sanders applies this sensitivity to the relationship between literature and larger social issues elsewhere as well; after providing an outstanding critical examination of Dickens's novels, he firmly sets them in the context of the "Condition of England" fiction so popular in the nineteenth century, including the works of such lesser lights as Harriet Martineau and Charles Kingsley. Sanders ranges far beyond the boundaries of England, examining the impact of Scottish writers and philosophers, the rich traditions of Irish literature, and the works of Welsh authors as well. And he brings his analysis up to the post-modern present, looking at such writers as Seamus Heaney and Angela Carter.
The literature of Britain has long since become a part of the cultural heritage of the worldan inspiration to literary traditions in America and elsewhere, and a continuing source of pleasure. The Short Oxford History of English Literature provides a remarkably concise account of this rich past, offering food for thought and an even deeper enjoyment of the great works.
A comprehensive introductory guide to the literature of the British Isles from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, with chapters on Old and Middle English literature, the Renaissance, the 17th and 18th centuries, the Romantics, Victorian and Edwardian literature, Modernism, and post-war writing. Throughout, the author combines concise analyses of individual works and authors with a sense of how they interacted in an overarching literary tradition. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)