The best books of the year! Always a lot of fun. In this case, three years: 1516, 1616, and 1716. Why not?
How would I know which are the best books of those years? How many can I have possibly read? Right. So I just read the ones that centuries of other readers have told me are the best. I am just repeating what they say.
My pick for 1516 is Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, at this point just the first forty cantos – the whole big thing will not be finished until 1532 – which are thrilling enough. I’ll put Thomas More’s Utopia in second place. There, those are the two books from the year that I have read. Good ones. Still, look at the Wikipedia entry for “1516 in art.” Start with Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and work your way down. Wow. That’s where the creative energy is.
My pick for 1716 is: I don’t know. Addison has shuttered the Spectator. Pope is busy with his Iliad. Swift is doing I don’t know what. Voltaire is writing plays. Congreve is not writing plays, having shifted entirely to politics. Marivaux is not yet writing plays. Defoe has not yet re-invented the novel.
I’ll have to go with the only 1716 text I am sure I have read, a couple of pages from John Gay’s satirical poem “Trivia: Or the Art of Walking the Streets of London,” as plucked out in The Penguin Book of English Verse (2000), a description of the weather, cleaning days, market days:
When fishy Stalls with double Store are laid;
The golden-belly’d Carp, the broad-finn’d Maid,
Red-speckled Trouts, the Salmon’s silver Joul,
The jointed Lobster, and unscaly Soale,
And luscious ‘Scallops, to allure the tastes
Of rigid Zealots to delicious Fasts.
I should read the entire poem someday.
The best book of 1616 – now that’s an easy one. It’s The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, Jonson’s First Folio, the inspiration for that later, more famous, First Folio. Nine plays, of which three – Volpone, Epicoene, and The Alchemist – are unique masterpieces. By “unique,” I mean no one else had ever written comedies quite like them. Two clusters of poems: Epigrammes, satirical; The Forest, lyrical. Then a number of masques and “entertainments,” also unusual texts, which I have only sampled. I mean, I have not read this book, just most of its contents. Complete plays in two volumes, complete poetry in another, masques in yet another.
The Forest includes a number of “To Celia” poems, like:
Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kisse but in the cup,
And Ile not looke for wine.
Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours forever:
He, at length, our good will sever.
Etc., etc., perfect lovely singable fluff. Other poems flatter, insult, seduce, flatter some more – one of the best, “To Penshurst,” flatters a house, an estate:
Thou joy’st in better markes, of soyle, of ayre,
Of wood, of water: therein thou art faire.
I picked an illustration from 1616, “The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens that is preposterous nonsense, but I have seen it with my own eyes in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Huge, a monstrosity, but it has a lot going on.