Friday, January 29, 2016

The Hundred Best Books as per Swinburne, Ruskin, and others - "jumping shrimps on a sandy shore express great satisfaction in their life"

In the fourth volume of Algernon Swinburne’s letters the alcoholic poet’s friends and family staged an intervention, saving his life at the cost of making his letters more dull.  I assumed that the final two volumes, with Swinburne living in the suburbs under the care of his friend Theodore Watts, writing more criticism than poetry, growing increasingly deaf and obsessing over babies – he really enjoys meeting babies – would lose the narrative thrust that made the earlier volumes often read like a good novel.  That is certainly the case with Volume 5.

Not that it is not good fun to see Swinburne tear into filthy Zola or execrable Byron (“I really know of nothing so execrable in literature as Byron’s plays,” letter 1308, Jan. 6, 1885, to William Rossetti, p. 93), or to watch him badger his publisher for “some few of Trollope’s numberless  novels” and the latest Gilbert and Sullivan play (“without the music,” 1426, June 21, 1887, p. 195).

Even better, I was led to an amusing document.  The Pall Mall Gazette published a list of the hundred best books by Sir John Lubbock and then asked writers, clergymen, librarians, and lunatics to comment on it.  The results were published as The Best Hundred Books By the Best Judges (1886).  “There is no more delightful pastime than to lecture other people on the choice of books” – no, no, not true.

The original list is too ordinary to be of much interest.  Swinburne’s is also surprisingly standard, to the point that I have read all but ten of his choices and all but one of his top fifty.  Shakespeare, Aeschylus, “Selections from the Bible,” Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and on like that.  No Euripides.  No Horace, since his childhood Latin instruction poisoned him against Horace.

Look, there’s Byron, but just “’Don Juan,’ cantos I-VII, XI-XVI, inclusive, and ‘Vision of Judgment.’”  I wonder what Swinburne has against Canto VIII.

Swinburne is a genuine expert on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, so his list is packed with the plays and poetry of the period, but he is fair enough to novelists: Rabelais, Voltaire, Diderot, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas; Defoe, Swift, Goldsmith, Fielding, Sterne, Scott, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Gaskell, Eliot, E. and C. Brontë; Wilhelm Meinhold – that one stumped me.  Childhood favorite, I’ll bet.

Conventional.  Perhaps Swinburne takes the exercise too seriously.  Or not seriously enough, as I see in the great find of the supplement, the annotated list of John Ruskin.  He does not submit his own list but rather mangles the original, and the Pall Mall just publishes it (larger, legible image here):

Ruskin is “[p]utting my pen lightly through the needless – and blottesquely through the rubbish and poison.”  The “Moralists,” theology, and Eastern epics are lightly excluded, while the historians and philosophers are hilariously blotted, as is Darwin – The Voyage of the ‘Beagle’! – and the journals of Captain Cook.  Why, why?  He murders every novelist except for Dickens and Scott,  A letter explains some but not all of his choices – “Gibbon’s is the worst English that was ever written by an educated Englishman” – and concludes with a call for someone to write an “intelligible” book about “the biography of a shrimp,” since he “was under the impression of having seen jumping shrimps on a sandy shore express great satisfaction in their life.”

Ruskin is the greatest.

I am sure there are other treasures in this pamphlet.  Wilkie Collins, William Morris, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, contribute lists.  Surely nothing as good as Ruskin, though.


  1. Marvelous. That adverb, "blottesquely," is certainly memorable and useful. It's hard to believe that in 140 years no one has yet, to my knowledge, taken Ruskin up on his shrimp biography idea.

  2. 10% of the reason I wrote this was for the word "blottesquely."

  3. Ruskin recommends/chooses "every word" of Scott. Wow! Twain would have had a fit! However, it is high praise indeed. I can think of only a handful of authors to whom I would give an "every word" recommendation. Off the top of my head, Flannery O'Connor is one. What about you? Upon whom would you heap that kind of praise?

  4. R.T.,

    Dostoyevsky, Austen, Walter van Tilburg Clark, Melville, Lawrence Durrell, for starters.

  5. Twain would have had a good laugh.

    I am not much of a list-maker, in part because my lists would be too dull. Fred's has personality.

  6. I love that they printed Ruskin's marked-up list instead of retyping it. He was a real character. The attached letter is wonderful.

    I'm not surprised that he crossed Euripides off the list, but I am that he marked out Sophocles. His objections to Sophocles must be aesthetic, rather than moral.

  7. The letter is the perfect mix of prejudice, nonsense, and insight. It is Ruskin, is what I mean.

    Sophocles was a puzzle. George Eliot, too. Blot!

  8. "“I really know of nothing so execrable in literature as Byron’s plays,”

    Byron's plays are mostly...not great, but Cain is so spectacularly good. Swinburne was missing out.

    Although Vision of Judgment is perhaps the finest thing Byron wrote.

  9. I have no special argument with Manfred, either, which I just reread.

    Swinburne wrote his own version of Marino Falieri, as if correcting Byron. I haven't read either version.

    I was pleased, given the abuse of the plays, to see Byron make Swinburne's list. Some judiciousness!