The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century

By Trevor Ross | Go to book overview

2 Albion's Parnassus and
the Professional Author

Faustus, these bookes, thy wit, and our experience,
Shall make all Nations to Canonize us

Marlowe, Doctor Faustus I.i

In 1595 a Cambridge don by the name of William Covell proposed what he believed was a novel solution to England's problems during a time of economic inflation and political discontent. Addressing the English universities, Covell exhorted them, in his words, to "take the course to canonize your owne writers, that not every bald ballader to prejudice of Art, may passe current with a Poet's name." 1 By "your own writers," Covell meant any English poets who had a claim to a liberal education. Covell named several: Spenser, "Lucrecia Sweet Shakespeare," and "courte-deare-verse happie Daniell," among others. What Covell meant by "canonize" is less clear, though he seemed to be envisaging both direct university patronage of poets and a type of public ceremony, such as the bestowing of honorary degrees or Petrarchan laurels. However administered, canonization, Covell believed, would provide England with a pantheon of poetic heroes, whose examples might help to raise the nation's stature abroad and to quell dissent at home. Covell nowhere suggested that English poetry should be taught or studied. If poetry in any language was taught at all in the universities of Covell's time, it was only as a compositional aid, a model for student imitations. Covell's canon was purely a symbol of England's literary eminence. In other words, his act of canonization was a declaration of value, but a declaration unsupported by the mechanisms of reproduction and pedagogy. Other than ceaselessly to celebrate the names of the dead, to keep them "canonized in learnings catalogue," Covell's scholars had no means by which to keep the poetry of the past alive for later generations. Of course, Covell was interested

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The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Making of the English Literary Canon - From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Introduction *
  • Part One - Versions of Canonic Harmony *
  • 1 - Early Gestures *
  • Part Two - Consequences of Presentism *
  • 2 - Albion's Parnassus and the Professional Author *
  • 3 - The Uses of the Dead *
  • Part Three - Defining a Cultural Field *
  • 4 - Value into Knowledge *
  • 5 - The Fall of Apollo *
  • Part Four - Consumption and Canonic Hierarchy *
  • 6 - Reading the Canon *
  • 7 - A Basis for Criticism *
  • Epilogue - How Poesy Became Literature *
  • Notes *
  • Index *
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