British Literature: A Heritage
September 1971

“British Literature: A Heritage,” Ensign, Sept. 1971, 48

British Literature:

A Heritage

Few except those who teach it are experts on English literature. But all of us can find pleasure in our small explorations. For me, literature has been inseparable from London, my “hometown.” London’s excellent public library system, its school systems, its museums, its live theaters, its art galleries—all these add up to an environment that stimulates literary appreciation. Encompassing and permeating this environment is an indefinable atmosphere created by a lengthy history shaped and molded in part by men of literature, many of whose feet have walked the London streets.

Personally, I’ve made little exploration into pre-Chaucer writings; he is a landmark in literature and perhaps the earliest writer the non-scholar gets to. Through his book of verse, The Canterbury Tales, I met the knight, the miller, the pardoner, and the twenty or so others who exchange stories to relieve the tedium of their pilgrimage from London to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. In homely but vivid stories laced with satire, Geoffrey Chaucer has the storytellers singly reveal their typical characters while they collectively portray the fourteenth-century environment, including the unfavorable side of its religious life. Six hundred years after being written, it is still absorbing reading.

A contemporary of Chaucer’s, John Wycliff, instigated a work that was to develop into the greatest monument to English literature—the English Bible. In Wycliff’s day there were no vernacular translations of the Bible. Wycliff fought Catholic proscription to prepare in 1382 the first complete Bible in English. William Caxton’s printing press (1476) encouraged others to follow suit, often at peril of life and limb.

In early sixteenth century London, William Tyndale began translating the New Testament into English. He finished it in Germany and had copies smuggled into England. Before being burned at the stake in Belgium as a heretic, he translated much of the Old Testament. Miles Coverdale took up the torch and published an English Old Testament based mainly on Tyndale. Other translations followed as the principle of an English Bible was accepted.

At a conference held in 1604 in the stately and beautiful Hampton Court Palace, a few miles from London, King James I appointed a committee to make a new translation of the Bible. The result, published in 1611, drew heavily on Tyndale and Coverdale and became known as the King James or Authorized Version. It is impossible to overestimate its influence either on literature or on the English-speaking world. Nephi seems to associate the success of the American colonists with their use of this Bible. (See 1 Ne. 13:20.) The beauty and power of its language are universally acknowledged. I have never visited Hampton Court Palace without pondering on the mighty work that was set in motion there in 1604.

But before James came the great Elizabethan era, when Englishmen, glorying in the sheer beauty of language, induced, as it were, an intoxication with words. This period was graced with writers like the poet Philip Sidney, the dramatist Christopher Marlowe, and the dramatist and critic Ben Jonson. It also produced Edmund Spenser, who wrote the epic poem Faerie Queen and who, as he put it, was born in “Merry London, my most kindly nurse.” Another Londoner of the period—born in the Strand—was Francis Bacon, the brilliant essayist.

But fate and fame have decreed that from that period one name shall stand out above all other English writers—William Shakespeare. Poet and playwright who successfully sought his fortune in the big city, he charmed his audiences at the Globe and Blackfriars theaters with his tragedies and romances, his perceptive comments on life, his exquisite phrases. He is still having this effect today.

I have enjoyed most of the Shakespeare I have seen or read. This is not difficult. Who, for instance, could fail to respond to such beauty of thought and expression as—

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1

Or what Englishman’s heart could resist the ringing words of Henry V before Harfleur which begin:

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead!”

Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1

If you prefer the sentimental sonnet, you have more than one hundred and fifty to choose from. Here are two lines of one of the loveliest:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

—Sonnet 18

Shakespeare’s skill with words both beautiful and descriptive has made him second only to the Bible as the most-quoted source.

Names of poets great and less great dot the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. John Donne, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who gave us the well-known line “No man is an island,” is sometimes referred to as an Elizabethan Browning. He contributed religious poems, love poems, satirical poems. Henry Vaughan did not make as great a mark on literature, but his discernment as a writer of sacred poems is impressive, as the following will suggest to Latter-day Saints. (One wonders whether Wordsworth might have taken ideas from this poem in writing his oft-quoted “Intimations of Immortality.”)

“Happy those early days, when I

Shin’d in my Angel-infancy!

Before I understood this place

Appointed for my second race,

Or taught my soul to fancy aught

But a white celestial thought:

When yet I had not walk’d above

A mile or two from my first Love,

And looking back—at that short space—

Could see a glimpse of His bright face.”

—“The Retreat”

Written two hundred years before the restoration of the gospel, this poem shows considerable insight and inspiration.

Cheapside in London was the birthplace of John Milton, Puritan, pamphleteer, and poet. A government official under the Protector Cromwell, Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost when he was blind. This is a monumental work, the theme being the fall of man, though it is not easy reading for the modern reader, partly because of its heavy leavening of classical allusions. Milton wrote other substantial works, including Paradise Regained. Often, particularly in church, I reflect on some lines from his “I Penseroso” that capture with rare beauty the emotion of worship:

“But let my due feet never fail,

To walk the studious Cloysters pale,

And love the high embowéd Roof,

With antick Pillars massy proof,

And storied Windows richly dight,

Casting a dimm religious light.

There let the pealing Organ blow,

To the full voic’d Quire below,In Service high, and Anthems cleer,

As may with sweetnes, through mine ear,

Dissolve me into extasies,

And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.”

Born twenty years later and much lowlier was John Bunyan, a tinker turned Baptist minister, whose outspoken unorthodoxy earned him many years in jail. He left posterity no less than sixty religious books and tracts, the best known of which is The Pilgrim’s Progress, the allegory of Christian’s search for the heavenly city. It has a simple yet vivid style that is very appealing. Incidentally, Bunyan’s book is a living testimony of what the English Bible did for unlettered folk.

The exclusive, modern clubs in the St. James area of London had their origins as coffeehouses in the seventeenth century. There politicians, lawyers, literary men, and others met to discuss the issues of the day. The poets John Dryden and Alexander Pope met in a coffeehouse. Both left us a rich legacy of verse. Besides his translation of Homer’s Iliad, the sickly Pope wrote several major works, among them An Essay on Man, from which come these off-quoted lines:

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As to be hated needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

In the coffeehouses, Joseph Addison—pioneer with Richard Steele of the English essay—discoursed to a select circle. In Steele’s Spectator, the “genial moralizing” of these co-craftsmen met with great success and set the form not only for the essay but for many a periodical of the day. The period produced two other great essayists, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, though they are better known, respectively, for the books Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.

Just off Fleet Street, one of the many narrow alleys of London’s square-mile city leads to the diminutive Gough Square. A small residence there is the former abode of the literary giant Samuel Johnson, who dominated eighteenth-century English literature for fifty years. Essayist, reviewer, biographer, critic, lexicographer, he produced great writing under pressure of need. “No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” he declared; and when he received a pension of three hundred pounds a year, he proved it—his output sharply declined.

I met Johnson through his biography written by his faithful, sycophantic friend James Boswell. There Johnson’s natural irascibility contrasts with his inborn kindliness. There, with his massive figure ensconced in his favorite chair in the tavern-club, he holds forth on all topics to a circle that includes painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and writers Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke. There, as in his writings, his high moral standards and his deep piety come through. By modern standards Johnson seems a somewhat pompous writer, especially in his early years, but he wrote with simplicity and great strength when moved by emotion.

“Friendship, peculiar boon of heav’n,

The noble mind’s delight and pride;

To men and angels only given,

To all the lower world denied.”

The novel had been developing for centuries. In the eighteenth century, Oliver Goldsmith who is best known for The Vicar of Wakefield, removed much of the novel’s coarseness and violence. Samuel Richardson inaugurated the sentimental novel. Henry Fielding added humor. This age also saw the rise of the woman novelist, of whom Jane Austen was the most notable. Pride and Prejudice is probably her best-known work. In this novel about life in an English village, the setting for all her books, the acutely observed characters, often painted with a brush of comic irony, come alive in such style that the reader feels he is living there.

But I prefer histories. The eighteenth century produced Edward Gibbon, who spent twenty years of his life writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He has been accused of being unfair to the Christians in that work, but I am willing to forgive him for that when I recall his profound historic sense and the genuine pleasure and delight of his clear, imposing prose.

Influential on human thought were the philosophers of the period, two prominent ones being Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Although they may have been noted more for other ideas than for their concepts of government, those concepts have had far-reaching effect. Locke believed that governmental authority was delegated by the governed. His writings on the implications of this delegation and on the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property made their imprint on the men who authored the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Scholars refer to the period from 1780–1830 as the Romantic Revival, an era characterized by a love of beauty, an intellectual curiosity, and an instinct for the elemental simplicities of life. In poetry the period gave us a long list of talented writers—William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron, to mention only a few well-known names. Many times I have savored such liquid beauty as found in Byron’s poem that begins—

“She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes:

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.”

—“She Walks in Beauty”

It was Wordsworth who gave us, among many great poems, the stirring lines to which the English-speaking world can still respond:

“We must be free or die, who speak the tongue

That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold

Which Milton held.”

—England, 1802 (iv)

The world recognizes the genius of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote in the Scots’ vernacular and whose generous, warm-hearted nature is reflected even in his poems about animals. He was a favorite (perhaps the favorite) poet of President David O. McKay.

Also a native of Scotland, Sir Walter Scott is known less for his poetry than his novels, stories that brilliantly display his enthusiasm for history and his fluent portrayal of it. His mind saturated with legends of the Border, he poured his genius into tales that make the past live all over again. Ivanhoe is perhaps his greatest novel. But for all his historical novels, I remember best his patriotic lines that begin—

“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land?

Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,

As home his footsteps he hath turned

From wandering on a foreign strand?”

The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto Sixth

In the quiet cloisters of the Temple, a retreat just off Fleet Street that still houses barristers’ offices, Charles Lamb was reared. Of the eminent, contemporary essayists—which included William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, and Leigh Hunt—Lamb is probably the best known. A visualizer of memories, he is enchantingly easy to read as he tenderly reminisces in his intimate style as if he were talking to himself rather than writing to a reader. His Essays of Elia, for example, are a joy to read.

In the Victorian era the list bulges. Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Robert Browning; Dante Gabriel Rossetti; William Morris; Algernon Charles Swinburne—each added his particular individualized contribution to the literary scene and to English poetry. Among others, two women poets made their distinctive mark—Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Inspired by her deep love for Robert Browning, Elizabeth wrote what is perhaps the greatest, most intense expression of feminine love to be found in all English literature. It is a sentiment with which the Latter-day Saint wife can readily identify:

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. …

I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.”

Sonnets from the Portuguese, 43

Space considerations preclude even the barest elaboration on the Victorian novelists. Charles Kingsley with his Westward Ho! and Hereward the Wake; William Makepeace Thackeray with his Vanity Fair; Charlotte and Emily Bronte with, respectively, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights; George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) with her Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss—these books and many more by these and other novelists continue to give reading pleasure.

Undoubtedly the greatest name among Victorian novelists is Charles Dickens, who was keenly sympathetic with the poor and the unfortunate. He used the novel as a platform for his social appeals, but this is often forgotten today as the reader sees Dickens portray, with the magic touch of his humor, the trivialities of everyday Victorian life, drawing graphic word pictures of people and places. Many of his stories have a background in the London he lived in and knew so well.

I have found pleasure too in some more modern writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, Sir James M. Barrie, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. I saw Shaw’s play Pygmalion on the London stage long before it was set to delightful music and lyrics and renamed My Fair Lady.

In this brief sketch of a huge subject, a great deal has necessarily been omitted. The literary territory is vast; my knowledge of it small. In times of discouragement at not finding time to read constantly in this rewarding field, I console myself with some words from P. G. Hamerton’s The Intellectual Life:

“The essence of intellectual living does not reside in extent of science or in perfection of expression, but in a constant preference for higher thoughts over lower thoughts; and this preference may be the habit of a mind which has not any very considerable amount of information.”

Lacking “any very considerable amount of information,” I have tried to develop this preference. An attractive part of it all has been enjoying the wanderer’s privileges all along the way, following nobody else’s route, lingering or passing on as fancy led. It has all been a great delight. It still is.

  • Brother Bickerstaff was reared in London, England, and lived there until 1958, when he immigrated to the United States. A former librarian and editor of manuals for the Sunday School and research editor of the Instructor, he is now editor for Bookcraft publishers. He has enjoyed teaching adult church classes over the years, has twice served as stake mission president, and is teacher development director in Wasatch Second Ward, Hillside Stake.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?–1400)

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

John Milton (1605–1674)

Robert Burns (1759–1796)

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)

George Eliot (1819–1880)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

H. G. Wells (1866–1946)

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1960)