Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Best of the Year, 1807

It's the season for best-of-the-year lists. In 200 years, almost everything on them will be forgotten, except by a few scholars, perhaps.

What were the great works of 1807? Heinrich von Kleist's wonderful retelling of Amphitryon is from this year. So is Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality", I think, and George Crabbe's The Parish Register - sad how Crabbe is neglected now. And best of all (all but Kleist), Ugo Foscolo's melancholy long poem On Sepulchres. Mme de Staël's Corinne still has some readers, although I'm not one of them, as does Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.

This does not seem like much to me. But say I am forgetting one good book or poem for every one I remember. After 200 years, the winnowing process is severe, unforgiving. Heartless. I'm not cheating too much by going back 200 years. Neither 1817, a good year for young English Romantic poets, nor 1827, with Manzoni's fantastic The Betrothed, are exactly brimming with great books. 1837 thickens up considerably (Dickens, Balzac, Hawthorne, de Musset, Carlyle, Emerson, Büchner). Spread the canon out over years, and you generally get a couple of great books a year, a handful of more marginal books, and, presumably, a shelf of good books with no more readers.

The painting is Turner's "Sun Rising in Vapour", exhibited at the 1807 salon, now in the London National Gallery.

1 comment:

  1. So true. I wonder what books from this year will be around in 200 years? if only I could be around then to find out!