For my money, the most heartbreaking ending in literature is The Name of the Rose. Not to be too spoilery, but it involves a hidden library of countleFor my money, the most heartbreaking ending in literature is The Name of the Rose. Not to be too spoilery, but it involves a hidden library of countless classical texts (imagine Aristotle's Comedy, the lost plays of Sophocles, the collected correspondence of Alexander the Great, etc.) going up in flames. That the writings that form the cornerstone of Western civilization are often just the remnants that survived by fluke chance reinforces the all-encompassing impermanence of the human condition. I judge Jeopardy contestants when they can't properly name Motown backing bands. History has a way of making important things trivial and then forgotten.
Anyways, if there was a winner in this fictional fire it was Sappho. Sappho was widely acknowledged as one of the preeminent Hellenistic poets of the Classical Era. She was the rare woman who achieved predominance in their field in antiquarian times. And she achieved a level of predominance that is pretty staggering for anybody. For many classical Hellenes it was Homer then Sappho then everybody else. There are even sources found from hundred of years after her death basically saying that her stuff was going to be around forever. Now, all that's left is over a hundred fragments. Probably none represent a complete poem. Only a few (around a half dozen) even resemble a full poem. The vast majority are random excerpts, (often quotations from a second source) of a few lines are less. Many are just a line or a segment of a line.
However, this has paradoxically made Sappho the perfect poet for an ADD generation. I can appreciate it, but man reading Wordsworth go on for pages rhapsodizing about some meadow can be a bit of a drag. It's there to be found, but it takes a certain amount of elbow grease and sustained concentration to extract resonance out of a lot of poetry. Compare that to something like "Fragment 105:"
To himself he appears...
That's it. That's the poem. And it's not just great because it's short. Read the whole surrounding circumstances into those words. Those words are trace survivors of a body of work that was first widely acknowledged as sublime, then slowly forgotten about. Yet somehow, these words lingered on, and survived until Renaissance Europe rediscovered her work, around 2200 years after her death. These words have meant something to people throughout the ages. We can't precisely say what they meant to a Classical Greek, but the trace elements leave a kind of common empathy. Isn't that, for lack of a better word, poetic?...more
The 20th century wasn't very kind to The History of England's reputation as a work of history. I don't know the material well enough to speak to theseThe 20th century wasn't very kind to The History of England's reputation as a work of history. I don't know the material well enough to speak to these criticisms, but I suppose there is a lot of substance behind them. Certainly Macaulay shows his biases and prejudices from time to time, probably enough to cause the modern reader to question the reliability of his narrative. But at the same time, who cares. Because whatever more modern and evenhanded historians may have over him, very few of them can come close to writing with the verve and style that drips off every page Macaulay wrote.
Whatever the title might suggest, the first volume of The History of England, from the Accession of James II doesn't actually reach the accession of James II until well past the halfway mark of the volume. The first three chapters serve as a long introduction. The first chapter provides a semi-brief overview of the history of England from the time of the Conqueror up to the Restoration, which is a thrilling feat of literary prose. The second chapter gives a semi-detailed account of the 25 year reign of Charles II. The third chapter gives an overview of the contemporary economic, social, and cultural climate in England. While these chapters are too long to be considered a brief overview, they could frustrate readers not overly familiar with the details of the period. For example, Macaulay generally refrains from referencing dates, so the reader is often unsure not only what the month or year is, but what decade the events took place in. Also, while Macaulay does an impressive job of introducing and familiarizing the reader with the important figures of Charles reign, they tend to get lost in the shuffle. The practice of referring to individuals soley by their last name, or their tiles (or their last names, then once granted their titles) once they are introduced doesn't help overwhelmed readers. I'm not sure what more Macaulay could have done to prevent this, except to spend even more time time on an era that is supposedly outside of his proposed purview, so it's hard to say that these shortcomings are a fault. Nonetheless it's something for the reader to be aware of.
It's not until the fourth chapter that Macaulay reaches the beginnings of his actual narrative. These two chapters cover the early months of James II's reign and the disastrous and futile rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, the popular illegitimate son of Charles II, and James' vindictive and misguided policy that followed. Appropriately he slows things way down. The first chapter covers 600 years of history. The second chapter covers 25 years. By contrast the fourth chapter begins with the death of Charles II in February 1685 and the fifth chapter ends with the Bloody Assizes in August of the same year. Here, the reader begins to get a much better feel of the important figures of the time and how one event flowed to another.
Of course three years after the complete failure of Monmouth's cause, James II would be driven from his throne without hardly any bloodshed. The Whigs, or the Country Party, who were at an all-time low after the Exclusion Crisis and and James' succession, would very quickly repair their reputation, overthrow the king, and dominate English politics for the next several generations. The Tories and Churchmen, who had held unquestioned obedience to the sovereign as one of the central tenants of the state-church since Restoration, would very quickly condone, if outright collude in, the overthrow of the rightful monarch. We're introduced to several figures who would play prominent roles in this reversal, and the events that followed. Macaulay introduces us to figures like Churchill, Danby, William of Orange, and Jeffreys.
The History of England used to be one of those books that no self-respecting private library went without. It was one of those books that became a status statement, displayed not because you had read it but because you liked the impression it created that you had read it. It's reputation has taken a hit even among aficionados because the history isn't unimpeachable. That's a shame, because it appears that the storytelling is....more