How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: Matthew Arnold

Reading English Victorian Literature: A Brief Guide to the Classics

Archery was popular with Victorian women, one of the few sports considered proper for women. “The Fair Toxophilites” (lovers of archery) by William Frith.

The English Victorian era, dating from about 1832 to 1901, gave birth to many of the works we now call “classic,” some of the best literature ever written in English.

Now we think of the Victorian Age as quaint and old-fashioned, but in reality it was the era in which our own modern age began. The Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, bringing rural workers from small villages to gather in big cities, shifting an economy formerly based on agriculture and handicraft industries into one based on high-volume manufacturing. The development of the Steam Railway system and the telegraph and, later, the telephone, connected people formerly divided by great distances, enabling the spread of modern culture.

In literature, the harvest of this period is rich. Victorian novels such as Middlemarch, Bleak House, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles still appear on critics’ lists of all-time best English novels. The last third of the century brought a flowering of new fictional genres: “sensation” fiction, science fiction, supernatural fiction, detective fiction, and adventure “lost world” fiction—genres that writers and readers still enjoy today.

Victorian poetry is no less famous, with works like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess” still anthology staples. Many poets continued the Romantic era focus on Nature and the Middle Ages, while adding a new fascination with the Italian Renaissance. Other poets focused on raising readers’ awareness of social problems, or pushed back against an over-mechanized and coarsening age, singing the glories of hand craftsmanship and “art for art’s sake.”

The end of the era brought great dramatists and playwrights, especially Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, who used side-splitting humor and irony to challenge over-earnest Victorian values they thought to be hypocritical.

Sunset by Samuel Palmer

What were the major “must-read” works of the English Victorian era, and what were they about? To see my picks, check out my annotated reading list (link below). It has comments and descriptions of major literary works of the English Victorian period.

Before you do that, however, you can click “read more” to stay with this post to learn a little more about the Victorian Age, its literary themes and forms, and the culture that informed its literature. This background will help explain the themes, ideas, and problems with which Victorian writers were concerned, all to help you read with more pleasure and understanding.

English Victorian Literature: An Annotated Bibliography

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Books to Read and Reread: Writers and Critics Define Classic Literature

Older man seated reading a book, with stacks of books behind him.

Classics are books that yield more treasures every time you reread, especially at different times in life.

What are literary classics, and why should we read them? Some of my ideas on that are spelled out in my post “Four Qualities that Make Great Literature Special.” What do some other prominent thinkers, writers, and literature lovers have to say? A quick survey of famous critics and writers suggests that the classics are the books that are not only good to read, but great to reread. We can come to them again and again, and still reap new pleasures and new ideas from the experience.

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How Not to Be at Sea about the Author, Era, and Situation of a Poem: Understanding Poetry Step 2

Photo of Shakespeare Cliff at Dover Beach by John Mavin* shows the rocky strand in the foreground and the tall white chalk cliff in the background.

Shakespeare Cliff at Dover Beach by John Mavin*

When I was new at teaching college literature, I assigned Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” for the first lesson in Literature and Composition because, naively, I thought it would be simple and transparent for students to understand. Ha! I was soon to learn that most people who come to this poem with no sense of cultural, historical, or geographical context are pretty thoroughly baffled by it.

That’s why I recommend finding out just a little bit about a poem’s author and era before you wade in. By looking up some minimal information about Matthew Arnold and his era, as well as investigating the meaning of the title, as we did in Step 1, we will see how a little bit of knowledge goes a long way toward helping us “find our feet” in the world of a new poem.

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An open book lying on the grass, surrounded by fallen leaves, brings to mind the widespread focus on nature in the works of many writers during the American Romantic era.

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