I have been really enjoying the 8-part BBC series Art That Made Us. It takes a look back through 1500 years of British history, picking out key cultural highlights during that time, encompassing art, literature, architecture, fashion, music and more, and then having contemporary commentators explaining their enduring relevance. The format works extremely successfully, and makes for both an interesting and an informative show.
After watching episode 1, which covers the period of the ‘Dark Ages’, I began to conceive a notion that it might be educationally instructive to me if I created a canon of literature to read as recommended by the series. That first episode had included the medieval Welsh poem, Y Gododdin; the Lindisfarne Gospels; and a modern translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley.
So far, so doable.
I continued watching episode 2, similarly inspired. This time, the selections came from the period encompassed by the Black Death. There was Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale; William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman; The Book of Margery Kempe; Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich; and the poem Pearl. Quite a lot of rather heavy religion and politics amongst all of that, but I was still feeling enthused with my project, and I realised that a certain amount of suffering was going to be required in order to reach the goal of self-enlightenment.
By episode 3, everything changed. I was still on board with my project when it was Shakespeare’s Othello and Queen Elizabeth I’s poem On Monsieur’s Departure, but William Morgan’s translation of the Bible into Welsh and then John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs––all eighteen hundred pages of it––had me realising that I had bitten off more than I could chew.
The following episode, the literature was more manageable once again but, by then, the damage had already been done; my resolve was broken.
All my good intentions to improve my historical literary education were shattered on the rack of Elizabethan verbosity; I consider that I would have merited an entire chapter in Foxe’s book myself, should I ever have succeeded in reading all of Foxe’s book.
Nevertheless, for someone with more stamina than myself, I include a list of all the literature mentioned in Art That Made Us and wish you good reading.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale – Geoffrey Chaucer
The Vision of Piers Plowman – William Langland
The Book of Margery Kempe
Revelations of Divine Love – Julian of Norwich
Book of Martyrs – John Foxe
Beibl William Morgan
Othello – William Shakespeare
On Monsieur’s Departure – Queen Elizabeth I
Paradise Lost – John Milton
The Rover – Aphra Behn
A Modest Proposal – Jonathan Swift
Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
A Man’s a Man For A’ That – Robert Burns
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Mary Wollstonecraft
Rural Rides – William Cobbett
North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Easter 1916 – W B Yeats
A Taste of Honey – Shelagh Delaney
Going, Going – Philip Larkin
The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
© Fergus Longellow
Fergus Longfellow looks for other means of self-improvement.