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Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century [Hardcover]

C. S. Lewis
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 30 1999 0198122314 978-0198122319
This book is intended for students of English literature at `A' level and above; general readers interested in a complete history of literature from Middle English to the earlier twentieth century.

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About the Author

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was an Irish author and scholar of mixed Irish, English, and Welsh ancestry. Lewis is known for his work on medieval literature, Christian apologetics and fiction, especially the childrens series entitled The Chronicles of Narnia and his science fiction Space Trilogy.

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By Mike London TOP 100 REVIEWER
Tolkien, in a letter to George Sayer as recorded in his biography JACK: A LIFE OF C. S. LEWIS, says that this is "a great book, the only one of his [Lewis's] that gives me unalloyed pleasure." Coming from Tolkien, this is very high praise indeed. Originally published as ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY EXCLUDING DRAMA and for some inexplicable reason recently renamed, this book, Lewis's longest work, will not be found in the libraries of the causal C. S. Lewis fan for the simple fact that it is a textbook and is aimed not at the general reader but instead the academic world (even in those days there was that damned phenomena of 'publish or perish!'). For those who are studying this material, however, will find the book a very remarkable one at that. As a previous reviewer noted, Lewis began referring to this text as "O Hell!" as the writing process became very tedious to him. This book was ten years in the writing, and by the time it was ended Lewis wanted to concentrate more on theology and Narnia than this "critical nonsense." The end sections of the book do not shore this weariness, however, so have no fear.
Although books of this sort always, by necessity, impose artificial time lines on literature which, in the long run, do not have a lot to do with the true literary history. To study literature in the sixteenth century, one should not confine oneself to going behind or in front of the time line to get a fuller understanding of the significance of the text. However, this is not really a fault of Lewis and it is a very difficult error to correct for literary historians. However, Lewis pulls off this artificial time limit very well by clearly illustrating the many strenghts and the many weaknesses of this century's literature.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Through Drab to Gold April 14 2000
Commissioned as a volume in "The Oxford History of English Literature", "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama", as it was originally titled, proved such tedium to write that Lewis took to referring to it by the acronym "OHEL". The sixteenth century ends as one of the great ages - arguably the greatest - of English literary genius, but it began dismally. Except in Scotland, where a vigorous Medieval tradition lived on, "authors seem to have forgotten the lessons which had been mastered in the Middle Ages and learned little in their stead. Their prose is clumsy, monotonous, garrulous; their verse either astonishingly tame and cold or, if it attempts to rise, the coarsest fustian. . . . Nothing is light, or tender, or fresh. All the authors write like elderly men."
This period of "bludgeon-work" gave way to something almost worse, "the Drab Age" - "earnest, heavy-handed, commonplace", a time when England did not shine and the peripheral light of Scotland guttered out.
The story would scarcely be worth telling, save for the happy ending, a true eucatastrophe: "Then, in the last quarter of the century, the unpredictable happens. With startling suddenness, we ascend. Fantasy, conceit, paradox, color, incantation return. Youth returns. The fine frenzies of ideal love and ideal war are readmitted. Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Hooker . . . display what is almost a new culture: that culture which was to last through most of the seventeenth century and enrich the very meanings of the words England and Aristocracy. Nothing in the earlier history of our period would have enabled the sharpest observer to foresee this transformation.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
58 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Through Drab to Gold April 14 2000
By E. T. Veal - Published on Amazon.com
Commissioned as a volume in "The Oxford History of English Literature", "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama", as it was originally titled, proved such tedium to write that Lewis took to referring to it by the acronym "OHEL". The sixteenth century ends as one of the great ages - arguably the greatest - of English literary genius, but it began dismally. Except in Scotland, where a vigorous Medieval tradition lived on, "authors seem to have forgotten the lessons which had been mastered in the Middle Ages and learned little in their stead. Their prose is clumsy, monotonous, garrulous; their verse either astonishingly tame and cold or, if it attempts to rise, the coarsest fustian. . . . Nothing is light, or tender, or fresh. All the authors write like elderly men."
This period of "bludgeon-work" gave way to something almost worse, "the Drab Age" - "earnest, heavy-handed, commonplace", a time when England did not shine and the peripheral light of Scotland guttered out.
The story would scarcely be worth telling, save for the happy ending, a true eucatastrophe: "Then, in the last quarter of the century, the unpredictable happens. With startling suddenness, we ascend. Fantasy, conceit, paradox, color, incantation return. Youth returns. The fine frenzies of ideal love and ideal war are readmitted. Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Hooker . . . display what is almost a new culture: that culture which was to last through most of the seventeenth century and enrich the very meanings of the words England and Aristocracy. Nothing in the earlier history of our period would have enabled the sharpest observer to foresee this transformation."
Had the scope of his labors not been set by his commission, Lewis would doubtless have preferred to skip the clumsy and drab, to delve into the riches of the Age of Gold. Still, despite his preferences, he was an apt choice to mine the less precious veins. Unlike many of his academic colleagues, who then as now regarded literature as merely a "job", Lewis read avidly in the most obscure corners. Little though he admired the early and drab writers, he was familiar with their work and could tease out virtues as well as point to flaws.
Three points about this history stand out as unexpected or significant. First is the fine opening chapter, "New Learning and New Ignorance", which contests the commonplace view that the medieval period was a vale of ignorance from which mankind was happily rescued by the Renaissance. That opinion is no longer prevalent in scholarly circles (where Lewis is now sometimes derided for expounding the conventional wisdom - much like accusing Shakespeare of writing in cliches!), but most general readers take it for granted. Lewis' presentation is one-sided, but it is a side that needs to be heard.
Second, Lewis devotes considerable space to Scotland, a territory absent from most of our literature classes. Though the Scots dialect is not easy to parse, Douglas and Dunbar and Lyndsay and their ilk are worthy of acquaintance.
Third - a slighter point than the preceding but interesting in its own right - there is Lewis' treatment of John Donne. As a young man, Lewis wrote a notorious essay on Donne, dispraising the quality of his love poetry and hinting that his vogue was due more to fashion than merit. For these heresies he became the stock villain of every introduction to Donne's work.
The "OHEL" volume takes a different tack. Lewis' appreciation of the "Songs and Sonnets" is warm and perceptive, with a useful disquisition on how to catch the rhythm of Donne's eccentric versification. It was not only, apparently, in matters of faith that Lewis was capable of casting off his youthful skepticism.
Within its genre - the comprehensive academic history - Lewis' effort is as good as a single mind and hand can produce. Similar tomes are nowadays parceled out chapter by chapter, gaining no doubt in narrow expertise but losing personality and perspective. Both are present in plenitude here.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars C. S. Lewis's radical literary views make this a must have! Aug. 22 2001
By Mike London - Published on Amazon.com
Tolkien, in a letter to George Sayer as recorded in his biography JACK: A LIFE OF C. S. LEWIS, says that this is "a great book, the only one of his [Lewis's] that gives me unalloyed pleasure." Coming from Tolkien, this is very high praise indeed. Originally published as ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY EXCLUDING DRAMA and for some inexplicable reason recently renamed, this book, Lewis's longest work, will not be found in the libraries of the causal C. S. Lewis fan for the simple fact that it is a textbook and is aimed not at the general reader but instead the academic world (even in those days there was that damned phenomena of `publish or perish!'). For those who are studying this material, however, will find the book a very remarkable one at that. As a previous reviewer noted, Lewis began referring to this text as "O Hell!" as the writing process became very tedious to him. This book was ten years in the writing, and by the time it was ended Lewis wanted to concentrate more on theology and Narnia than this "critical nonsense." The end sections of the book do not shore this weariness, however, so have no fear.
Although books of this sort always, by necessity, impose artificial time lines on literature which, in the long run, do not have a lot to do with the true literary history. To study literature in the sixteenth century, one should not confine oneself to going behind or in front of the time line to get a fuller understanding of the significance of the text. However, this is not really a fault of Lewis and it is a very difficult error to correct for literary historians. However, Lewis pulls off this artificial time limit very well by clearly illustrating the many strenghts and the many weaknesses of this century's literature.
Because it is for the student of literature, much of the more radical elements of this text will be lost without a general knowledge of the preconceptions the academic world has in regard to the literature in question. The opening chapter ("New Learning and New Ignorance") stands as one of Lewis's most famous academic writing because of the sheer implications and challenges set forth in the chapter. He debunks many of the fashionable scholarly trends, focusing on how much of what the scholars say is off base. Lewis argues that the during the sixteenth century much of the literature proved extremely dull, saying the authors wrote like "elderly men". Toward the close of the century, however, something radical began to take place. There was a renewal and an elevation in quality from drab to gold, as Lewis puts it. Most literary scholars and historians think the Renaissance is responsible for this, but Lewis says this theory has no truth, because the humanists who were responsible for the Renaissance were terrible scholars and brought death to the literature they presented, presenting the classics' virtues as ills and instead focused on the way the classics said what they said. The humanists focused on the language and left the literature itself alone. Everything else about the literature they hated. Lewis continually attacks the humanists, stating that "the new learning [that of the humanists] created the new ignorance." His belief that the Renaissance never occurred in England, and if it did it was of no literary importance, is as radical a literary belief as accepting the Book of Mormon to the Bible would be to a Christian.
The rest of the book reads as a survey of the literature of the period. All major and quite a large number of minor authors are represented in this. As a textbook, this stands as fascinating reading, for Lewis constantly illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of whoever he is dealing with, and his numerous quotations from the texts dealt with show the true skill of selection to prove a point. All of the quotations give a further understanding in context of Lewis's prose. If all textbooks were written with such skill and wit, there would not be the incredible resentment (myself included) of the price tag on most college text books.
Lewis's 1938 on Donne, published in SEVENTEENTH CENTURY STUDIES PUBLISHED IN SIR HERBERT GRIERSON has made him the heretic and central enemy of all Donne scholars and fans. Here he does not attack him but helps readers deal with Donne's metre. However, Lewis only gives five pages to Donne, and he was fond of saying that "Donne's place is that of a minor poet."
The reception of this book was fair, although the most resentment came from the academic circle. People accused Lewis of, as Sayer says in his biography, grossly oversimplifying by presenting only two classifications: drab and gold. Yvor Winters goes to the extreme when she says that "Mr. Lewis has simply not discovered what poetry is."
Of all the volumes in the series this still sells the most. Sayer notes in the aforementioned biography that "many Oxford tutors still warn their students that it is `unsound but brilliantly written.' Nevertheless, or perhaps partly because of this warning, it outsells all the other volumes in this series." While it does not enjoy the monumental place in criticism of THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE, which many would argue is Lewis's most significant piece of criticism, partly because of the radical ideas mentioned above, this work stands as one of the most brilliant and enjoyable survey books every written.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Majestic. Sept. 15 2011
By David Marshall - Published on Amazon.com
Earlier this summer, I visited a place on Mount Rainier I hadn't been to in more than thirty years. It was a splendid day: glaciers towered above clouds, which wafted over ridges rising out of evergreen forests, with waterfalls tumbling down, a cinnamon-phase black bear grubbing for eats on the far bank of a glacial river, deep snow fields, and dozens of kinds of wildflowers sprinkled across the meadows.

Since my last visit to that spot, I've read almost everything C. S. Lewis had written, in some cases many times -- except for this book.

It is almost as majestic, in its own way, as the mountain.

Here's a daunting piece of topographical data: a 92 page bibliography. Lewis takes time to briefly introduce thousands of books in it, often with notes on their quality and what you'll find. Got a couple lifetimes to spare?

But every trip begins with a single step, and Lewis is walking through a century. He gives a little more weight in this narrative to poets than prose writers, and about as much to the last 20 years of the century, as to the first 80. Not being a scholar of English literature, I found some of the early citations a bit hard to make out -- the language becomes easier for us non-specialists as the century draws on. The "wild flowers" visible on this mountain are snippets of poetry Lewis quotes. The "bears" and other wildlife might be compared to the sometimes scruffy writers, whom he describes with consumate literary skill.

One of the remarkable qualities of Lewis' work is the variety of genres to which he contributed. Tolkien may have found Narnia glib, but most of us enjoyed it. Till We Have Faces is, I think, better than some Nobel-Prize winning novels. His shorter scholarly works tend to be revolutionary in their insight and beautifully written, but less grand in their ambition. Of course he also did science fiction (fantasy), "letters" (from the devil), and theological / philosophical essays. This book, with its many peaks, reaches above the clouds. In scope and outline majestic, in detail brilliantly observed, whatever else it be, Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century is a great work of scholarship.

If you don't know anything about 16th Century literature (I didn't) should you read this book? Sure. Don't try to swallow it all in one bite, though. It took me two months to read, 5-15 pages at a time. A lot of it remained over my head; I may have to read a few more of the principles, put a walking stick in the back of my car, and return. I also want to pick up a copy of Arcadia.
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