Originally published February 24, 2012 in Crisis magazine.
He faces execution each day. Seven days a week, his jury of peers votes unanimously for capital punishment. The judge’s hand is typically stayed. Mercy reigns because the accused shows signs of improvement. Perhaps, this little boy will one day also become fully human. With him and his kind rests the fate of Western Civilization.
My son Willie’s peers are, as you may guess, his sisters (his younger brother bides his time and keeps a low profile). Willie’s offenses are many, but on one particular morning as the jury howled for blood, the naughty five-year old could be heard dressing himself and singing this little tune:
Old Mr. B! Old Mr. B!
Hickamore, Hackamore, on the King’s Kitchen door;
All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men,
Couldn’t drive Hickamore, Hackamore,
Off the King’s kitchen door.
Now some of you will recognize this as a riddling tune by Squirrel Nutkin. My son has not been made to memorize it. He has heard the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin a number of times, but it does not have the near liturgical status of a rather simple version of Chicken Little, whose current reading is now Vespers-like in its regularity. Somehow the songs of Squirrel Nutkin are in him now, perhaps because Nutkin’s are songs in which he can participate and understand his own nature.
Willie’s singing of “Old Mr. B!” was accompanied by a sort of twisting dance and chuckling laugher that suggested he saw something of himself in that furry agent provocateur, Squirrel Nutkin. If you do not have your own five-year old, let me assure you that you simply cannot mete out justice against a little fellow who knows such tunes and takes them so very seriously.
My son’s song reminded me of a letter that my wife read to me once. It was written by John Keats in 1818 to his little sister Fanny. Keats had been back-packing in northern England and Scotland. At the end of a long day hiking in Dumfries, during which Keats occasionally “scribbled” poems and thought for his sister, he trotted out the following lines—“a song about myself,” as he put it:
There was a naughty boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be-
In his knapsack
Full of vowels
And a shirt
With some towels—
A slight cap
For night cap—
A hair brush,
For old ones
Would split O!
Tight at’s back
He rivetted close
And followed his nose
To the north,
To the north,
And follow’d his nose
To the north.
This playful tune rolls on through four parts and ends as follows:
There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He ran away to Scotland
The people for to see—
There he found
That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red,
Was as weighty,
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England—
So he stood in his shoes
And he wonder’d,
He stood in his
Shoes and he wonder’d.
I find this poetic scribbling simple, beautiful, and wise. I also find it as wonderful as the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which Keats wrote the following year. Perhaps my judgment is shocking, but it is true. Would a complicated argument or ornate poem burst the conceit of vagabond cosmopolitanism as effectively as this naughty ditty?
The romantic notion of genius beguiles us. Too many of us think that something like the Odes of Keats (which are sublime in their perfection) are Divinity’s random appearance amongst men and have nothing to do with the specifics of culture or of an individual’s own mind, soul, upbringing, and conscious working out of talent.
The “cold pastoral” of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” came from a naughty boy. I would argue that it came out of the naughty boy precisely because he was a boy, a boy who liked to trick and amuse his sister, like many a boy. His head was filled with potent sounds and images. These delighted him constantly and made the fertile stuff from which his better-known poetry was born. Let us not forget that Keats came from a particular kind of family and particular kind of education and particular culture. Let us tremble at every loss or diminishment of that world which assumed such families, education, and culture would be wide-spread.
Our own disorders spring from so much neglect of the real soil of culture: the widely shared canon of good literature and the widely affirmed understanding that there must be goodness in literature, and that such literature should be read aloud within families and by each and every person who dares call himself civilized—before, during, and after their formal education. Goodness is the soil of greatness.
I do not mean by goodness in literature and good literature that all characters should be plaster statues without depth or real complexity. No, I mean literature which elicits a clear understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful, because what is light is seen nearby to what is dark. Enchantment will not work in an imbalanced world of goody-goody mannequins. The enchantment offered by good literature works because those reading or listening to a tale already know first-hand that life is complex. We need go no further than Squirrel Nutkin to understand how this very real balance is achieved even in a children’s literature. Nutkin is, at once, morally flawed and attractive. No one who encounters Squirrel Nutkin—even one of five years—can fail to miss his conceit, fail to anticipate his demise, or fail to recognize his own fallenness in the impertinent will-to-power of Nutkin.
I will go so far as to say that a reader who has not had his experience nurtured and refined by the likes of Squirrel Nutkin is unlikely to comprehend Thucydides, St. Augustine, or Nietzsche.
Over the last century, “great books” programs and colleges have fought a valiant battle to keep up the high standard of what it means to be human and civilized. Sadly, most of the progenitors of these programs neglected or gave little time to thinking about the supporting culture—especially as it touched upon family life and social customs. Worse still, some of the “great books” proponents thought that by rubbing up against Milton’s Areopagita, or joining in a seminar discussion of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, leaders would be born who would create, leaven, and sustain a good society. Somehow the idea has held steady for decades that an almost sacred encounter with great literature between the ages of 17 and 22 could transcend a hollow and malnourished family life, where little song was heard and none sung.
Yet the great books demand a supporting culture—both before and after and throughout.
Would we place our trust in a man who was well-versed in Nichomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but who could not complete a line of nursery rhyme, who had never slept under the stars with Jim Hawkins, never wanted to rescue the likes of Princess Flavia, never shrunk in horror at the witches of Macbeth, never wept at the death of a bull dog named Jack or sorrowed over the sins of Kristen Lavransdatter? The one thing a liberal arts or great books education will not do is create a moral imagination where there is none. Yet somehow many educators believe that reading advanced works and chatting about them will lead to a good society. It may lead to a well-read society, but that need not be a good one or a happy one.
For this reason, I wonder how we can go about encouraging those “naughty” boys who at least learn their poetry and know in their bones what friendship, mirth, betrayal, danger, and courage are.
In short, should we not defend those naughty boys and girls, who are not really naughty, but still visibly filled with the eternally youthful wonder that sustains us through life? Such naughtiness may be our best hope for finding the future custodians of the great books and the whole of our civilization.
The following short essay and booklist was authored by Dr. John Senior. It was originally a talk given at one The Remnant Forums in the 1980s, and it was also published in The Remnant. It was first added as an appendix to his book, The Death of Christian Culture, in the 1994 reprint edition. He also added some very brief comments about spiritual reading, art and music.
I would like to thank David Whalen, Kirk Kramer, and Fred Fraser for their help in producing this version of the essay.
Senior’s list was the inspiration behind starting the Civilized Reader, which reviews the good and the great books.
The “Great Books” movement of the last generation has not failed so much as fizzled, not because of any defect in the books—“the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase—but like good champagne in plastic bottles they went flat. To change the figure, the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, adventures, which have developed into the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest. Western tradition, taking all that was best of the Greco-Roman world into herself has given us the thousand good books as a preparation for the great ones and for all the studies in the arts and sciences, without which such studies are inhumane. The brutal athlete and the foppish aesthete suffer vices opposed to the virtue of what Newman called “the gentleman.” Anyone working in any art or science at college, whether in the so-called “pure” or the practical arts and sciences will discover he has a made a quantum leap when he gets even a small amount of cultural ground under him—he will grow up like an undernourished plant suddenly fertilized and watered.
Of course the distinction between “great” and “good” is not absolute. “Great” implies a certain magnitude; one might say War and Peace or Les Miserables are great because of their length, or The Critique of Pure Reason its difficulty. Great books call for philosophical reflection; whereas good books are popular, appealing especially to the imagination. But obviously some writers are both and their works may be read more than once from the different points of view – this is true of Shakespeare and Cervantes, for example.
It is commonly agreed also that both “great” and “good” can only be judged from a certain distance. Contemporary works can be appreciated and enjoyed but not very properly judged, and just as a principle must stand outside what follows from it (as a point to a line), so a cultural standard must be established from some time at least as distant as our grandparents’. For us today the cut-off point is World War I before which cars and the electric light had not yet come to dominate our lives and the experience of nature had not been distorted by speed and the destruction of shadows. There is a serious question—with arguments on both sides surely—as to whether there can be any culture at all in a mechanized society. Whichever side one takes in that dispute, it is certainly true that we cannot understand the point at issue without an imaginative grasp of the world we have lost.
What follows is not a complete list: almost all the authors have written many books, some as good as the ones given; and there are undoubtedly authors of some importance inadvertently left out—but this is a sufficient work-sheet. Everyone will find more than enough that he hasn’t read; and everything on this list is by common consent part of the ordinary cultural matter essential for an English-speaking person to grow in.
Remember that the point of view throughout a course of studies such as this is that of the amateur—the ordinary person who loves and enjoys what he loves—not of the expert in critical, historical or textual technology.
The books have been divided (sometimes dubiously because some stand midway between the categories) into the stages of life corresponding to the classical “ages” of man and in general agreement with the divisions of modern child psychology as explained by Freud or Piaget. And because sight is the first of the senses and especially powerful in early years, it is very important to secure books illustrated by artists working in the cultural tradition we are studying both as an introduction to art and as part of the imaginative experience of the book. This is not to disparage contemporary artists any more than the tradition itself disparages contemporary experiment—quite the contrary, one of the fruits of such a course should be the encouragement of good writing and drawing. A standard must never be taken as a restrictive straitjacket but rather as a teacher and model for achievement. Book illustration reached its perfection in the nineteenth century in the work of Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, Gustave Dore, George Cruikshank, “Phiz,” Gordon Browne, Beatrix Potter, Sir John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and many others.
The rule of thumb is to find a nineteenth-century edition or one of the facsimiles which (though not as sharp in the printing) are currently available at moderate prices. What follows is an incomplete work-sheet of unedited notes which may serve as a rough guide.
Literary experience begins for very young children with someone reading aloud while they look at the pictures. But they can begin to read the simplest stories which they already love at an early age.
The Bible. For cultural purposes, there are only two English Bibles: for the Protestants the King James Version and for Catholics the Douay-Rheims. Both are literary masterpieces as none other even remotely is. Since spiritual mysteries can only be communicated through poetry, whatever more modern versions may gain in accuracy is nothing compared to what is lost.
Avoiding extremes of difficult and light—neither Bach nor Debussy—the distinction between “great” and good is blurred. The student should listen to one work only for at least a week, going over and over the separate movements or acts until the repeated themes are recognized as they recur. It is better to know a very few works very well than to run over vast amounts. The following is a good order for neophytes:
With an opera, read the entire libretto in English, then take only a single scene and play it through several times trying to follow the words in Italian (or French or German) with an understanding of their meaning. Having gone through the whole opera scene by scene, pick out great moments – arias, duets, etc. It is good to have two recordings, one of the complete work, another of the highlights.
(Most important: Students should attend live concerts).
The Kenneth Clark series Civilisation. Clark published a book with illustrations and the text of the series. And most important, visits to museums and galleries.
TITLE IMAGE: Carl Larsson, Esbjörn at the Study Corner, 1912.