So I'm taking a sophomore Brit Lit class. It's definitely a survey – one day on her, a week on him, one passage from this major work, read three poems out of his hundreds, a dozen sonnets in total. I'm grateful for what I am learning, and I guess the point is to serve as an introduction. But really, its leaving me feeling all the more deprived.
Most of my middle and high school English courses were pretty random – no unified approach to sytematically reading and studying the classics. A high turnover rate in teachers during those years mean that each teacher taught what they willed, and we never really got a thorough study of the classics in school. And because I wasn't really introduced to them or the value of reading old texts, I didn't pursue or read them on my own when I had the time to read. (Almost all my extracurricular reading was historical fiction, or modern Christian fiction. It truly has given me a better understanding and love for history than my peers have, but it's hurt my literary understanding.)
So now that I'm reading the greats, the literary foundation of the English language, I'm beginning to see how much I've missed. (Going even deeper is the context and foundation upon which they wrote – the foundation of Western civilization stemming from Greek and Roman tradition.) Exhibit A: John Donne. I've read maybe eight of his poems/sonnets (some outside of assigned reading) and just in those I've recognized three phrases that later writers have borrow and utilized for their own work (“for whom the bell tolls” and “the world's last night”) or have become common sayings (“No man is an island”). Exhibit B: reading just a few pages from Milton's Paradise Lost, Dante's Inferno, and Marlowe's Faustus. So much of culture's understanding of eternity and the spiritual realm comes from the interpretations/imaginations of these men.
CS Lewis once described those who don't read the classics and old texts as guys who come in at dinner time and start arguing in a conservation that has been going on since early that morning. The newcomers are presumptuous, often confused, and sometimes just flat out wrong because they do not have the context needed to ably participate.
It's kind of like those Christians who scream that they're under grace, not law, and therefore have no need of the Old Testament. But without the context of the old covenants, the new covenant much less significance in of itself. Without knowing the context of the Old Testament, the passion of the prophets, the lineage from Adam to David and beyond, the exile and return, the promise of coming redemption, the Law itself, the New Testament doesn't make much sense. And just as the foundation of Brit Lit is based on the foundation of Greek and Roman civilization and literature, so the power of the Old Testament is not in just knowing the law, but understanding it as the Hebrews did, knowing the significance of events and language as God revealed it in the context of Jewish language and culture and history.
Context is everything.