My wife says I don’t do leisure well. I’m not a good companion for languid hours on the beach reading diversionary mystery novels while sipping gin and tonics. On second thought, that’s not entirely true: gin I do quite well. But otherwise she’s right. I treat time off as an opportunity to draw up for myself what amounts to course syllabi.
For a number of vacations I assigned myself the great poems I failed to read as an undergraduate. They take a great deal of work, but the rewards are great. Start with Beowulf (Seamus Heaney has a nice translation). The opening lines describe oars plunging into the sea with set-jaw determination, carrying you into a world of honor-seeking ambition that isn’t as archaic as we often imagine.
Also read Sir Gawain and the Green Night (W. S. Merwin’s translation). The scenes of attempted seduction are exquisite, and the ending provides moving testimony to the peril of prizing life above all else. Piers Plowman is a late medieval poem by a contemporary of Chaucer. The Kentish dialect of Middle English of the original is accessible. It takes serious work, but the endless alliterations (rather than rhymes) and theological richness make this poem a joy to read.
Milton once said that Edmund Spenser was a greater moral theologian than St. Thomas Aquinas. Milton exaggerates, but he’s surely right that Spenser’s fantastic allegories and terse dialogues have a great deal to teach us about the moral life, which is why The Faerie Queene outshines Paradise Lost. I wouldn’t call Spenser a greater poet, but he saw the human condition and our often-anguished journey toward God in a richer, more humane way than Milton did, who at the end of the day was more interested in ideas than people.
Spenser’s masterpiece, The Faerie Queen, is the longest poem in the English language—not something to try to swallow whole. I recommend starting out by reading the Cliff Notes account of Book One, which tells of the adventures of Redcrosse Knight on his quest for holiness. That will give you enough acquaintance with Spenser’s themes and characters to settle down with Book Two, the adventures of Sir Guyon and his search for temperance. You will be entertained by Spenser’s surreal, imaginary world, yes, but beneath, above, and within the medieval fancy are extraordinary insights into virtue of temperance.
Before the invention of the novel, verse provided the vehicle for throwing philosophical and theological truths into their enacted, experienced forms, which is why I’ve profited so much from medieval and Renaissance poems, especially those I’ve recommended, all of which are allied with the chanson de geste, tales of heroism and adventure that delight as much as they inform. Unlike Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost, they are primarily narrative rather than didactic, or more precisely didactic in and through their narrative forms. Enjoy—and ask yourself what these great poems seek to teach.
In the modern era, the novel superseded poetry as the dominant literary vehicle for moral reflection. Good novels provoke us to ask what they “mean.” Great ones become touchstones for our self-understanding: Ivan Karamozov, the voice of our skeptical nihilism; Jay Gatsby, an emblem for our self-invention.
In recent years I’ve been assigning myself Henry James and Joseph Conrad. James was a hybrid American-European acutely aware of being in, but not of, his social milieu. Conrad was born in Poland, went to France, and as an adult refashioned himself first as an English sea captain, and then as a country gentleman. These backgrounds made them the most sociologically sophisticated novelists ever to write in the English language. Unlike James Joyce, who was alienated and angry and therefore turned his critical intelligence into a weapon, or later novelists for whom social criticism became a rhetorical convention, James and Conrad were modern enough to see our socially constructed self-images, and yet not so modern as to cherish or reject them”or take them for granted.
The best of James’ novels to read are the last ones: Wings of a Dove and The Golden Bowl. Many of my friends have tried and given up, often in exasperation, because the long, ornate, obscure sentences can be frustrating. Fair enough, but these novels are more like life than treatises; they are to be experienced, not understood. They describe men and women entering our therapeutic age, one that seeks something the medieval and Renaissance poets would have found unimaginable: life for the sake of life.
Lord Jim is Conrad’s greatest sociological novel. The title character lives for the sake of his self-image. That’s not a novel thing; Achilles did the same. What makes this novel a powerful description of the dawning new age is the fact that Jim can ward off the power of society to define him, and he does so not by way of a heroic loyalty to conscience (Rousseau, Emerson) or will to power (Nietzsche), but with the inchoate sense of the socially constructed contingency of society’s imprisoning walls of honor and shame. We are all Jims now.
Spenser’s Faerie Queene and James’ Golden Bowl as summer reading? I can hear my wife groaning and commenting that these recommendations amount to the intellectual equivalent of my usual vacation plans, which often involve climbing remote mountains and going on hundred mile bike rides. I plead guilty. Happily.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.