Thursday, October 12, 2006

In praise of the English language

As a native speaker I surely would not be so impressed. I love my dark, emotional Finnish and would not have an idea of this deep and slow dimension as a pure Anglophone. But this said, Shakespeare began our modern age, and basically ended it as well. All this when we had only painfully clumsy devotional literature in Sweden and Finland. Donne was surpassing that left and right without even attempting accompanied by Milton, Dryden and all the others. Such a literary tradition that we have never seen anywhere else on Earth. Perhaps it will end up as condemned and discarded should this liberal civilization not prevail (as seems to be increasingly likely) but in the meanwhile, in this moment: such exhilaration in the flexibility and nuance of meaning, in the breadth of imagination and clarity of feeling. I would really not accept this praise from any native speaker: how could one tell, not knowing anything else, being insular, selfsatisfied, narrow in scope. But for outsiders there is cause for admiration and celebration. We have sparse Latin and abstract, intellectual Greek at the heart of our civilization, but their modern heir is English, Shakespeare's language.

5 comments:

helsinkian said...

In Swedish literature, Georg Stiernhielm (1598-1672) has been called the father of Swedish poetry. At that time, Swedes ruled Estonia, and Stiernhielm had a manor there. I guess that's where Swedish non-devotional literature took off. Stiernhielm of course had his literary début after Shakespeare had died.

In devotional literature St. Birgitta (aka St. Bridget of Sweden, 1303-1373), is still held to be a classic. She may have been medieval and Shakespeare may have been modern (and indeed, no literary great, devotional or non-devotional, was writing in Sweden while Shakespeare was alive) but she certainly was one of the leading religious personalities of the 14th Century with high literary qualities.

stockholm slender said...

I would say that that really is the difference: Shakespeare is distinctly modern as his contemporaries and those that followed butin Sweden-Finland you get this archaic, turgid, clumsy language about characters and events that are totally undynamic. Shakespeare in many ways was the birth of the modern Western era.

helsinkian said...

Shakespeare being modern doesn't mean Medieval literature is completely uninteresting or irrelevant from a modern point of view. Some of Shakespeare's language is archaic, too, but it doesn't bother us since you can get his works with clarificatory notes. Shakespeare was modern for his day but he didn't yet have a distinctively modern consciousness of history that the Romantic era brought us.

Lasse Lucidor (aka Lars Johansson) was born in Sweden only 18 years after Shakespeare's death. I think the choice of the pen name (that brings Lucifer to mind) already hints of a modern streak in Lucidor (1638-1674). His poetry certainly isn't turgid or clumsy. The existence of such a wizard as Lucidor to me is proof of the giant leap that Sweden took during the 17th Century to become a leading European power. Sweden in the day of Shakespeare was quite peripheral and Medieval but only 50 to 100 years from that many things had changed. Not that I particularly like the intolerant 17th Century mindset in general or the bloodbath that Swedish expansionism led to, not least in Poland. Still, mid to late 17th Century was a key period in Scandinavian history in many ways. I think the dynamism of the period (post-Shakespeare but not by so much) also shows in the language of that day.

helsinkian said...

Lucidor was of course born 22 years after Shakespeare's death, excuse my mathematics.

stockholm slender said...

Well, I'm sure there are lots of points of interest in medieval literature, but I must say that I'm yet to encounter a text that I would enjoy artistically. Shakespeare might use archaisms but his world is a scarily fully developed modern, even secular world that we know and live in - and Shakespeare was by far not the only one streching the bounds of language and character by leaps and bounds. One of my favourite writers J.R.R. Tolkien was firmly on the other side of the divide, even disparaging Shakespeare as compared with all sorts of highly boring texts - I don't think there is any objective way to dissolve this type of esthetic differences...