ON REREADING THE GREATS
There’s something about the ordinary processes of schooling (and colleging) that leads students to believe that the purpose of it all is to “get through” and be done with one course after another—signed, sealed and delivered to the transcript—and then forgotten.
Good teachers, however, believe otherwise. Since I teach literature and language skills, I’ll speak from my perspective, though I think teachers in other fields will make comparable cases in terms of their own disciplines.
When I introduce students to Chaucer or Shakespeare or Milton, for instance, I mean for them to begin a lifelong friendship with these authors, not a nodding acquaintance soon to be dismissed. Any such writer, established as a “classic,” has earned that status by delighting auditors and readers over centuries, even while challenging them to appreciate their complex and subtle artistry in language more fully with longer acquaintance.
“Been there, done that,” a checklist attitude, does not apply to great writing any more than it does to great friends, both of whom reveal more of their qualities and virtues through long and intimate association.
It’s true, though, that Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, along with other “Greats,” present off-putting challenges to newcomers, though not so formidable as learning a foreign language. Chaucer’s Middle English, it’s true, does take mental labor to adopt, though it sounds more foreign than it reads. Two hundred years later, the Early Modern English of Shakespeare and Milton presents lexical novelty (lots of bygone words) but uses grammar and syntax we comprehend without much trouble. And all three of them are poets and thus wield language lyrically, language that sings with echoing resonance and meter, a physical delight to hear intoned.
Amazingly, great literature grows as you grow, and thus deserves revisiting throughout your lifetime. A poem or play you first met in school or college, if it’s great, will not seem quite the same once you’ve accrued more tender feelings and hard knocks with age, or just seen more of life’s variety through both direct experience and wider reading.
Hang in there is my point. After meeting any of these luminaries, add them to your library, befriend them on your mental Greatsbook, and check in on them from time to time throughout your life.