Literary giants who shape the way we think, write and live today
Shakespeare’s dead. Long live literature!
Here is something that might come as a shock: Shakespeare is not the most influential writer in the English language. Arguably, he is not even the best. And for this reason he is not going to be amongst the five names you are about to read.
We love Shakespeare as much as the next reader, but in this blog we’d like to get past the stumbling block which is the famous Bard and his legacy. We’ll explain first why he doesn’t make it in.
Shakespeare: cultural phenomenon
The glovemaker’s son from Stratford is without doubt the most famous, the most mythologised, and the most studied of all English writers. This year, his second most produced play, Romeo and Juliet (behind A Midsummer Night’s Dream – almost always being performed somewhere in the world) finds itself once more turned into a major Hollywood Film.
But he doesn’t qualify for this list. For one key reason: the influence and measure of his work falls beyond the simple realm of literature. He was the first example of a cultural industry: a celebrity, even. What Shakespeare’s work managed to do was capture a very specific moment in history – cultural, economic, intellectual, political – and catapult it into the universal. Shakespeare’s language has seeped into our everyday speech (did you know he coined the phrase ‘green-eyed monster’ to describe envy?). But his writing did not change English language forever: it changed the world and the way we interact with it.
If you’re not satisfied with our argument, leave us a comment here. But now, we proudly bring a drum roll to celebrate five influential writers whose work has altered the English language in huge ways.
John Milton [1608-1674]
Choosing just five people to include in this list was difficult; but John Milton’s name was never in doubt. If you want to hear about how important his work has been, just listen to a little of this lecture by English academic Professor William D Kohlbrener.
Milton’s Paradise Lost, written around 40 years after the death of Shakespeare, is undoubtedly one of the literature’s greatest achievements. The first verse alone is a perfect example of his contribution to the English language. He uses everything to tell the story: syntax (order of words), rhythm, sound, imagery and adjectives set the scene, and the rest of the poem continues with this incredible richness. Milton doesn’t create lines of poetry: he grows fields, trees, forests of words that the reader darts in and out of:
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
After Milton, every other writer had to catch up. Few have managed to.
Charles Olson [1910-1970]
You may not have heard of him, but Charles Olson’s writing and thinking about language is one of the most profound factors influencing the English language in the second half of the twentieth century. Here he is reading his poem ‘The Librarian’.
From performance poetry to hardcore rap to new epic poetry by revered writers and academics like J H Prynne to much-loved 1950s and 1960s writers like Frank O’Hara and Robert Creeley, Olson’s influence is the one we all feel but cannot recognize. His essay Projective Verse reconnected the body with the mind, putting the physical act of writing back in the centre of the poet’s consciousness. Olson reminded an increasingly intellectual world of the importance of sound, feel, taste, volume, power: in a word, he injected the English language with a shot of vibrant energy it so badly needed.
Gertrude Stein [1874-1946]
If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you might remember Gerturde Stein as the character played by Kathy Bates. Stein was writing in a time of incredible modernist enthusiasm: the 1920s. Her experimental yet curiously human novels and poems were Cubist word paintings that somehow worked beautifully as verse, or as novels. Her commitment to experimentation was typical of her work. Read from her novel Tender Buttons.
William Blake [1757-1827]
A Londoner born and bred who was, and to an extent still is, one of the unsung heroes of the English language. Blake was the only true poet to answer the challenge of Milton’s grand work – and in some cases, surpass him with his incredibly epic, almost hallucinatory visions and calls. It was as if his words contained too much energy to be controlled: he would often illustrate and engrave his poems as well. And this is his great contribution to the English language: making it visible, alive through his use of imagery and line length.
Blake’s extremely visual, hugely suggestive and truthful poetry, which also introduced ‘free verse’ (verse with no strict rhyme or meter) was in many ways a predecessor of post-modernity. Whilst the English establishment rejected him during his lifetime, and after, American writers have picked up his visionary baton – from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Jerusalem and Milton are all must reads.
Samuel Beckett [1906-1989]
This list would not be complete without an Irishman. Choosing between Samuel Beckett and James Joyce is difficult; in fact, we’d rather include them both, but there simply wasn’t space.
Samuel Beckett wins for his sheer influence. As experimental as Gertrude Stein, better with precision than Orwell, yet at times as poetic as Milton, Beckett is a writer who tackles the most serious subject matter (death, nothingness, decay, waiting, despair) with clown’s humour and complex, strong but delicately arranged prose. Here’s a section of his work Play done by well-known British actors Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Juliet Stevenson.
He is without doubt one of the greatest writers of all time: alongside his theatre and Trilogy of novels, his short prose works are incredibly moving and very poetic – try Texts for Nothing and Ill Seen Ill Said.