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

By Trevor Ross | Go to book overview

6 Reading the Canon

Late in his digression on the Ancients and the Moderns (1688), Fontenelle speculated on how, just as the Greeks and Romans had enjoyed an inflated reputation thanks to a recurrent prejudice for the antique, so his literary contemporaries might themselves look forward to being "excessively admired centuries from now, as recompense for the meagre attention we receive in our day. Readers will study our works for beauties that we never imagined putting there, while blatant faults, to which any author would own up, will find the staunchest of defenders." 1 The thought, which Johnson would ridicule in the opening of his Preface to Shakespeare, nonetheless correctly prophesied that the works of the Moderns would find a later life as objects of study, their canonicity sanctified in commentaries whose function would be to locate ever-new latent beauties, to make such old works seem timeless in their significance, and to turn faults into virtues by persuading readers to revise their standards. The Ancients, like Scripture, had long been maintained in a position of cultural pre-eminence through such allegorizing commentary, critical consecration, or, beginning in the later seventeenth century, objectivist modes of interpretation founded on rationalist and historicist principles. Yet it is only in the eighteenth century that such forms of attention began to be applied extensively to works of English literature. The works of the English canon had by then been around long enough to warrant not just the prestige of sumptuous editions, as they had been honoured with in the past, but with analyses and arguments that could reveal for the contemporary reader heretofore unappreciated splendours in the

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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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