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October 2015

Examples of Great English Literature that will Inspire

These masters of the English language will inspire you with their words

Whether you’re a student of the English language or not, it’s always beneficial to be inspired by great prose. Reading enlightened works offers us an appreciation for the power of words, giving us the push we need to further our linguistic pursuits. Today, we’ll take a look at three examples of great writing in English literature from three very different sources. Hopefully it will spark some inspiration in you.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When it comes to playing with words and the meanings behind them, few come close to the whimsical world created by Lewis Carroll with his novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Everyone knows the story in some form, especially after it was popularised as a Disney animated motion picture. Still, nothing beats taking in the words directly, as we will do today.

The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.
‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where —’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘— so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

In this scene where Alice meets the enigmatic Cheshire Cat, Carroll uses their dialogue to poke fun at the meaning of words (as well as offering up a few existential ideas—it’s as much a metaphor for life, as Alice is, at this juncture, not only directionless in movement but also in purpose).

Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. ‘What sort of people live about here?’
‘In that direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in that direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.’
‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’
Alice didn’t think that proved it at all; however, she went on ‘And how do you know that you’re mad?’
‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You grant that?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Alice.
‘Well, then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.’

Again, Carroll uses absurdist logic to illustrate the Cheshire Cat’s belief that he himself is mad. The author’s playful use of meaning, purpose, and rationale throughout the book makes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland an overall fun read.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is a somewhat dark poem (he was a bit of a downer) that utilizes a literary device known as alliteration. This occurs when a sentence has several words that begin with the same letter or sound. Consider the opening stanza of Poe’s poem:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
           Only this and nothing more.”

We can see that “weak and weary” and “nodded, nearly napping” are both examples of alliteration. Poe also utilizes repetition, a rhetorical device that simply means he is repeating a word again. We see this in his usage of the word “rapping, rapping” and “chamber door”. Used alongside alliteration, the familiar sounds put together with masterful rhyming creates poetry that flows off the tongue.

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
           Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
           This it is and nothing more.”

We see both alliteration and repetition used in the line, “From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore” and in the dramatic segment, “Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door”.  The repetition also creates an air of drama, illustrating well the heavy thoughts the protagonist has over this unexpected and unwelcome visitor.

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
           Darkness there and nothing more.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
           Merely this and nothing more.

To be more technical, Poe utilized trochaic octameter, a structure that features eight feet per line of stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. To find out who was really at the door, you should read the complete text of “The Raven”.

William Shakespeare, Henry V

Any list of great English writers would not be complete without a mention of the great Bard of Avon. William Shakespeare’s mastery of the English language and his ability to combine humour and aristocratic wit retains him the legacy of being influential even today. Consider that the play Romeo and Juliet was written entirely in strict iambic pentameter (a poetic form), with variations for certain characters to accentuate their personalities. To tell an entire story effectively while following a particular structure with each line took great skill.

Below, we have the rousing battle speech from his play, Henry V. One could see it as one of the original rousing battle speeches from popular entertainment.

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

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