From Elizabeth I to Churchill: A Literary Survey
By Kent Owen
 
20 January 2007
The Wall Street Journal
 
The English Reader
By Michael Ravitch and Diane Ravitch
Oxford, 486 pages, $30
 
    ANTHOLOGIES of works written in English have been available since at least 1861, when Francis Turner Palgrave published "The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language." Later anthologies have sometimes shown a finicky bent toward including samples from too many sources. This can make for a certain overstuffed amplitude.
 
    So it's a treat to come across a book organized on a different basis -- one that communicates the vitality and richness of the English language instead of the outer limits of too muchness. Diane and Michael Ravitch (mother and son) have arranged a well-curated collection of durable poems, essays, hymns, speeches, folk songs and prose excerpts, beginning with Elizabeth I's "Speech on the Eve of Facing the Spanish Armada" and ending with Winston Churchill's "Speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940." In between are 3 1/2 centuries of words and phrases, rhymes and rhythms, measured thoughts and impassioned poetry that, taken as a whole, represent much of the English literary tradition and, moreover, the cultural legacy that is Britain's.
 
    Whether sampling from Shakespeare's sonnets and dramatic speeches, or William Blake's mystical poems, or the lyrics of John Keats, the Ravitches make it their overarching purpose to restore a compelling awareness of the work to our contemporary consciousness. What common readers once knew as a matter of course has come to seem remote or of little interest. It is no small matter that the ways of thinking and feeling that inform the institutions of Western civilization should be regarded with indifference.
But although its aim is mildly didactic, "The English Reader" is by no means an ordinary textbook. In point of fact, it isn't a textbook at all. More than anything else, it serves to entertain, putting at hand the serendipitous pleasures of a good used-book store. (Readers in search of more ambitious and comprehensive anthologies might turn to Harold Bloom's "The Best Poems of the English Language" or John Gross's "The New Oxford Book of English Prose.") The curious browser in "The English Reader" is rewarded with one discovery or reacquaintance after another.
 
    To wit: Robert Louis Stevenson's bracing essay "Aes Triplex"; William Hazlitt's astringent "Man Is a Toad-Eating Animal"; helpings from John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, E.M. Forster and George Orwell. We also find British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst delivering a speech in New York City in 1913 and Irish patriot Roger Casement addressing the Old Bailey after his arrest for treason in 1916.
Lest one suppose that everything is weighty with greatness, there is Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca" ("The boy stood on the burning deck / Whence all but he had fled") -- one of the best-recalled and most oft-recited specimens of overwrought poesy in English.
 
    As editors, the Ravitches have brought together many powerful works of literary art. Suitably, their introduction is eloquent and their notes brief, telling and to the point.
 
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Mr. Owen is a writer in Bloomington, Ind.