I love Best of the Year lists, and believe that they are valuable, even if they do not quite do what they think they are doing. For example: let us look back 200 years and catalog the Best Books of 1811.
As usual for the first couple of decades of the 19th century, the bulk of the Top 10 action is in German literature, where three major, long-lasting books were produced:
1. The second volume of Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories, which included his longest piece of fiction, the novella Michael Kohlhaas. Kleist ended the year by shooting himself in the chest.
2. The novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Aside from the difficulty of the author’s preposterous name, I do not know why this story, among the greatest fantasies of the century, is so little known in English. Fantasy stories are still popular, I believe. This one, about a water spirit who falls in love and becomes more or less human for a while, is light and fluid and not burdened with allegories of Kant or Masonic flimflam like some fairy stories I could mention. George MacDonald called it the ideal fairy tale, which it is.
3. The first volume of Goethe’s autobiography, Poetry and Truth. I do not remember how far he gets in the first part. The childhood section is a marvel, even delightful. Much of the recent movie Young Goethe in Love is presumably drawn from this memoir. Goethe was 62 or so when this book was published.
German “Top 10 of 1811” lists, if there had been such things, would have regularly included these three books. Kleist would be more common on the lists of young firebrands, who might well omit Goethe to declare their independence from orthodoxy. The omission of Undine by the avant or rear-garde would simply have been a failure of judgment.
What else was going on in 1811? Napoleonic France was for some reason bad for literature, so I do not know of anything there. American literature, by which I mean lasting literature, had not quite been born yet, although I am sure a number of highly praised poems about Niagara Falls were published.
I wonder what the English Top 10 lists would have looked like? Novels were not quite respectable yet, and crackpot visionary poets much less so, so the two greatest works of the year would have been omitted.
The image atop the post is the title page of William Blake’s Milton: a Poem. One might note the 1804 in the lower left and wonder why I place the poem here. My understanding is that Blake had been working on the poem since 1804, and that complete versions of these extraordinary handmade objects did not exist until 1810 or 1811. And then I am arbitrarily picking the latter. This is as good a place as any to remind myself that although I do double-check dates and so on, these year-end wrap-ups likely include some pretty grim errors.
Milton: A Poem is among the less complex of Blake’s mythological poems, which does not mean that I remember it well , or that the summaries I have used to jog my memory have been much help. The spirit of Milton enters Blake’s foot and is united with his Female Principle? ???* Even if the entire poem is rarely read, the preface is the source of a genuinely famous poem, “Jerusalem” (see left):
I shall not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
As famous now, more famous, is the only English novel of the year whose title or author mean a thing to me. Sense and Sensibility, by “A Lady,” was published in 1811, and I amuse myself thinking of how baffled all but a few readers of the time would be at the book’s life, that it is not only read 200 years later, which is rare enough, but hugely popular, both beloved and esteemed, while so many books that got so much more attention have been forgotten.
Which 2011 Top 10 list includes our contemporary Sense and Sensibility?
The Blake images are borrowed from the Milton page of the William Blake Archive.