Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Literary Canon

I'm required to send weekly emails to my literary theory class, so I thought that I would post them here as well so that y'all could get a feel for what I do as an English major.

Email 1:

I remember the first time I asked the question, "What is Literature?" I was sitting in Dr. Bozorth's British Authors I class after we had just read Addison and Steele's essays and before we could even begin the class discussion, I said, "Dr. Bozorth, these essays do not seem like literature to me. These are just magazine articles. Shouldn't we be spending more of our time reading great poetry instead of the equivalent of our Vanity Fair magazine?" He then said, "Class, this is a great opportunity to discuss 'What is Literature?' The answer is that if it is in the Norton Anthology it is Literature, otherwise it is not. Maryam, the essays are in the Norton Anthology, so they are Literature." He was (sort of) joking of course, but I think what he said had great merit. A literary work is only called Literature if it has been labeled as such. Holy Semiotics, Batman!

This brings us to the subject of the "Literary Canon" and the exclusion of works deemed not worthy. For example, the obsession with "Orientalism," a term which actually referred to Persian, not East Asian, poetry, was prevalent in Victorian-Era Europe, particularly in England and Germany. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward Fitzgerald was the reason that T.S. Eliot became a poet (it's true; Google it!) and outsold many the works in the traditional canon. Lord Tennyson began his literary career translating Persian poetry at Oxford and produced great poems inspired by Persian poetry, such as "Recollections of the Arabian Nights," and his "In Memoriam" owes much to Rumi's poetry about Shams. Matthew Arnold’s "Sohrab and Rustum" published in 1853 further demonstrates the influence of Persian poetry. The list goes on and on. However, "Orientalist" poetry and traditional Persian poetry are not considered part of the literary canon. There is no mention of them in the Norton Anthology even though this was a major phase of British and World literature and is studied very deeply in England (my mother earned her A levels in Persian literature after studying with an Oxford professor). It seems that politics, or as Eagleton says, "ideology" has pushed crucial and valid influences like Persian poetry by the wayside in order to make room for whatever "Literature" fits the mold of the Powers That Be. In fact, Cecil Lang's second edition of his anthology The Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle replaces Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with Swinburne's "The Leper" and "Anactoria" to "show a new aspect of Swinburne not discussed previously." Mr. Lang has little regard for showing English students an aspect of British literature not discussed previously.

We have no Persian lit courses at SMU, which is sad considering how large the Persian studies department is at the University of Texas and Ivy League colleges. I encourage you all, as students and scholars of Literature, to indulge yourself with the riches to be found in Persian poetry, even if it's not part of the canon:

from Tennyson's "Recollections of the Arabian Nights"

Then stole I up, and trancedly
Gazed on the Persian girl alone,
Serene with argent-lidded eyes
Amorous, and lashes like to rays
Of darkness, and a brow of pearl
Tress├Ęd with redolent ebony,
In many a dark delicious curl,
Flowing beneath her rose-hued zone.

(lines 133-40)

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