I had one son come in at the Crack of Dawn (TM) to verbally rehearse his essay for the set text. Yes, it is exam time here. And he is sweating: he has to pass English. If he does so, he does not have to take it next year, which will be a cause of celebration. This lad nails History essays in his sleep, which should correlate nicely with succeeding in English: instead he struggles.
Now, those who know history understand that the study of English is a late development in the English-speaking world. Throughout the Victorian era and indeed until after the second world war, you studied classics — Latin and Greek, in the original (which you had learnt at high school) and modeled your arguments on the greats. Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero… and Plato, Pythagoras, Augustine and Aquinas. English was a remedial subject.
This changed. The English department argued that the same literature existed — from Saga to philosophy — in Old and Middle English. English was a worthy study. The first practitioners of this were the generation between the wars: Tolkien and Lewis were prominent critics and part of the Oxford school.
When I went to school, these ideas still echoed. We were told to read Pope, and the more daring teachers added Eliot and Joyce to the canon. But we were exposed to examples of the best — even in South Auckland this lad read Caesar and Shakespeare.
Modern English, however, has become a technical exercise in projection. Art and beauty have been abandoned for a continual attempt to reflect popular culture. The ephemeral is taught, not the tested. And in doing so, English misses its point. It no longer educates. Instead, it is a mode for propaganda: and anything beyond the obvious is missed.
By way of contrast, today’s text is about the non obvious.
1After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2 for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
3Once more they said,
The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”
4And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,
5And from the throne came a voice saying,
“Praise our God,
all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
small and great.”
6Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
8 to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure” —
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” 10Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
What English has lost is the testimony of Jesus. The current poets who write hymns are people like Billy Bragg… writing to the nation and worshiping socialism, not God. Compare this…
I was a miner
I was a docker
I was a railway man
Between the wars
I raised a family
In times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry
Between the wars
I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
“We’re arming for peace me boys”
Between the wars
The ephemeral, the beautiful… is lost. Older, but not that much older, is this…
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
G K Chesterton
Chesterton, who had been taught the classics by those great educators, the Jesuits, had an awareness that there was more than what you could see. He looked beyond the popular culture and in doing so, managed to influence it. As a journalist and poet. Bragg is a socialist in a time of the fading left. As a good socialist, he sticks to what Mayavosky called writing as if it was in the newspaper. And beauty is hidden, and dies.
English should refer to beauty and truth. It does not. And for that reason, English is a failed subject. If it was not compulsory for matriculation, it would die.