Good morning! Last week, we went over the books I read for the first semester of my literature class—The Great Divorce, The Iliad, The Aeneid, and a whole lot of Plato. This week, let’s take a look at my second semester line-up! Once again, I’ll examine the content of the books and then the edition/translation I used.
This semester was fun because the books we read were from the late Roman empire, medieval, and Renaissance periods, and we read them in chronological order. So my class was able to examine the progression of view on matters such as free will and humanism over the years. Let’s start at the beginning, with…
The Confessions by St. Augustine, trans. Henry Chadwick
What can I say about The Confessions? Of course it’s a very good book, foundational to Western Christianity. But I found it dull at times, especially the philosophical minutiae of Augustine’s conversion. Also, I’d already read so much C.S. Lewis (who draws heavily on Augustine, and who would cringe if he read this paragraph) that I felt as if I were familiar with most of what Augustine had to say. Of course, it was interesting to see where Lewis got some of his ideas, and Augustine’s conversion story is remarkable, but I just didn’t enjoy it that much. However, I’m fully prepared to acknowledge that the defect is in myself, not the text! I’m sure that if I returned to the Confessions in ten years, I’d get much more out of it.
THE TRANSLATION / EDITION
Again, I know next to nothing about Latin, but based on my limited experience, this Chadwick translation feels like Latin. That is, it’s dense and ornate, which is not a problem; but it does make it more difficult to read. I’m sure it’s a true translation, though, since it has that Latinate feel. My edition (Oxford World Classics) has limited margin space, small print, and few paragraph breaks, which only adds to the challenge of reading! I do love the cover, though
(even though I’m baffled as to why Augustine, a North African, is depicted as a white redhead).
Purgatory by Dante, trans. Anthony Esolen
I enjoyed Inferno when I read it a few years ago, and Purgatory did not disappoint. The dynamic between Virgil and Dante is wonderful, and Dante (the poet, not the character) writes so well. He pokes fun at his own pride and uses beautiful imagery to depict the Christian’s journey of sanctification. And the discourse on free will in the middle cantos is so fascinating! I loved everything about Purgatory–the plot, the characters, the themes, the poetry–and if you haven’t read it yet, please add it to your TBR!
THE TRANSLATION / EDITION
I could write a 100-canto ode in terza rima to the Modern Libary editions of the Divine Comedy, but I’ll restrain myself. First, the translation. I love Anthony Esolen himself, and his Divine Comedy is delightful. He writes in a sort of “sprung” iambic pentameter, rhyming when it works but never forcing rhymes at the expense of a true translation. It’s probably the closest an English translation can get to both the meaning and beauty of Dante’s original poetry. Esolen’s footnotes and endnotes are also incredibly helpful for understanding and writing about the work. The edition itself was like a breath of fresh air after the Confessions:
So on the left, there’s the original Italian, and on the right is Esolen’s translation. It was useful to have both, because sometimes I’d read something and want to know how Dante himself expressed it. All I had to do was look over to the right and use my Latin/Spanish knowledge to get a general idea of what the Italian was saying! Also, there were a few times when my teacher pointed out something about the Italian, so I was able to make a note of that. Speaking of notes, look at how much margin space there is! I made full use of that, I assure you. And to top it all off, the font is lovely. This is one of my favorite books that I own; I’d definitely recommend this edition and translation!
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
I adored the Canterbury Tales! My class didn’t read every one of the Tales, but the ones we did read were so much fun. I loved all the different layers of each story: first, there’s the overarching narrative of the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury; then, the character of each particular pilgrim; then, the literal level of each tale; then the allegorical and moral levels; and finally (my favorite of all) how the character of each pilgrim impacts how we should interpret their tale! It’s so meta, y’all. Not to mention that some of the tales themselves were so entertaining (not the Miller’s Tale, that one was just gross). The Canterbury Tales has all the things I love about stories: fun plots, strong narrative voices, deeper meanings, and commentary on the nature of storytelling itself! It may have been my favorite book of the year.
THE TRANSLATION / EDITION
I relied on print-outs from my teacher for the Canterbury Tales. We read the original Middle English for the General Prologue but not for the other tales. Of course I’d rather read the Middle English, but it takes much longer than a modern translation, so I was glad that we didn’t only read the Middle English. There wasn’t one specific translator that we relied on, so I can’t really comment on that aspect of it, except that we read a prose translation of The Knight’s Tale when I would have preferred a verse one. The book I used for my picture is a lovely Everyman’s Library edition with a great glossary and supply of footnotes, which makes the Middle English much more manageable!
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Even though I love Shakespeare, I hadn’t yet read Hamlet because I knew I’d be reading it this year. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint. Hamlet himself is an intriguing character, and I could identify somewhat with his mistrust of Renaissance humanism. Also, his struggling with questions of human mortality and fate hearkened all the way back to Achilles’ struggles, so it was fascinating to see how those views have developed over time. Hamlet has complex characters and tackles dark themes alongside a gripping plot, so how could I not love it?
THE EDITION / PERFORMANCE
I used Dover Thrift Editions (when will I learn?), which was surprisingly OK. It was readable, unlike their version of Symposium and Phaedrus. But the act/scene numbers are off towards the end, which was pretty irritating. Also, it will probably fall apart within two years. So yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it.
We also watched Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet in class. I was grateful that the teacher took the time to show it to us in its unabridged glory, because Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not just read. The film wasn’t perfect, but it was still very good. I enjoyed it a lot, especially Derek Jacobi as Claudius. And it had some very clever moments, such as the two-way mirror in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. A solid film, one you should see if you haven’t already.
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1 Year Blogiversary!
I published my first post last year on May 31, so it’s been a year and a day since I started my blog! Although I no longer think it’s accurate and it makes me cringe a little, why don’t you go check out my first-ever post–7 Shakespearean Boyfriends, Definitively Ranked–just for old time’s sake?
And now I want to hear from you. Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? Let me know in comments!