Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library, 2010)—An outstanding overview of the early 19th-century cultural movement known as romanticism. A writer at the height of his craft, Blanning casts a wide net, surveying a huge corpus of art, literature, and music both in England and the continent, but creates an astonishingly tight and compelling account in a mere 200 pages. Blanning’s history surely trumps M. H. Abram’s 1971 classic The Mirror and the Lamp in its accessibility and scope. It reminded me why I became so fond of the “long eighteenth century” (from which the romantics emerged), and it left me eager to dig into Blanning’s ambitious The Pursuit of Glory.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835)—Long acquaintance with this short story made it no less disturbing upon rereading. The dreamlike quality of its central action, the preoccupation with the gap between appearance and reality, and the paranoid darkness of its central character all make it strikingly modern. Perhaps that’s why Melville liked the story and compared it favorably to Dante’s Inferno. It struck me that, while the action is motivated by the demonic, the thrust of the story—its moral, so to speak—is pointedly about not staking one’s religious convictions or assurance on the piety of others. It says next to nothing about the believer who anchors his faith in Christ. In this regard, the story seems to be less about religion per se and more about the anxious social world of early 19th-century New England.
Thomas Traherne, Selected Poems and Prose (Penguin, 1991)—In an extensive “bibliographical postscript” at the end of The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart praises Traherne’s Centuries as “one of the most compelling and beautiful descriptions of seeing reality as it truly is, in both its immanent and transcendent dimensions.” That’s high praise coming from a man whose prose is as engrossing as his erudition is intimidating. So this Penguin edition, now out of print, provided an excellent entry point, even though much of his work can readily be found online. The Centuries of Meditations are pithy, sometimes epigrammatic, numbered paragraphs, in sets of 100 (hence “centuries”), and they do repay careful attention. They bear some similarity to the pensées of Blaise Pascal, who was just 14 years older than Traherne.
Simon Armitage, translator, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Somehow I missed this mesmerizing story in my formal education. It’s a classic meditation on love and honor that deserves to be wider read and appreciated. Now that I have closed that embarrassing gap, I’d like to spend more time comparing the original Middle English with a more literal translation, such as Marie Borroff’s or even J. R. R. Tolkien’s. Armitage’s translation, which accentuates the alliterative quality of the original, surely stands heads and shoulders above similar attempts by his peers—Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf comes to mind—but there’s also a layer here that I suspect is not quite part of the original. I am tempted, though, by Armitage’s other Medieval translation, The Death of King Arthur.
Ethan Canin, Blue River (Houghton Mifflin, 1991)—A finely wrought tale of two brothers, with some parallels to the biblical parable. Not nearly as weighty as the others I’ve mentioned above, this novella still offered a haunting portrait of a fraternal bond, through conflict, loss, and nostalgia.