With all the fuss about dropping Shakespeare from GCSE English syllabuses, now seems a good time to re-state the case for the canon of great literature that should be taught in schools. Even the current syllabuses are vague on what constitutes a "classic": calling simply for the study of "pre-1900" texts.
So while appreciating parents and teachers will have their own ideas on literary "greats", here are my choices for the canon:
Shakespeare (1564-1616): Every age has reinvented the Bard in its own image. Renaissance Man or post-modern angst, "To be or not to be" says it all. Shakespeare haunts our language. What's more, each year Macbeth proves a big GCSE hit with teenage boys - and they are notoriously difficult to please.
John Milton (1608-1674): Neglected nowadays - but his subject matter sets him apart as the most ambitious English poet. Teenagers may wince at a poem as long as "Paradise Lost", but despite unfashionably Christian themes, many of Milton's lines have proved enduring ("They also serve who only stand and wait"). His struggle against blindness alone should inspire us.
Jane Austen (1775-1817): For 200 years, The Great Jane has been mocked and vilified by all who seek "relevance" in literature - perhaps not surprisingly, as all six of her novels deal with nice girls getting married. But critics of Austen ignore the fact that her satire against human follies can be as savage and biting as Swift's. Beneath the smooth surface, there's an edge as hard as a Vinnie Jones stud.
John Keats (1795-1821): Died of consumption and unrequited love aged 25, what better criteria for all-time greatness? Lived in Hampstead long before luvvies, and in three short years, produced some of England's finest verse. "To Autumn" still has plenty to say to teenagers. So, too, has that superb sonnet to self-discovery, "Chapman's Homer". Keats is just the kind of target who could fall prey to fashionable neglect. That would be a pity: his own age rejected his talents too.
Charlotte Bronte …