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By Giuseppe Carone

‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ (‘Endymion’, l. 1, Book 1, 1818, by J. Keats)

Literature and society

Dear EFL Magazine editorial staff,
Thank you very much for the professional job you all do every month to set up and release this language magazine. Usually, it arrives in our houses unfailingly in the first week of each month and if sometimes it is a bit late or I am without my computer on which I read it, I feel a kind of abstinence syndrome.

EFL Magazine is linguistically very helpful both at a theoretical and practical level. It gives precise insights into the English language in itself and into the varied didactic ways and forms that teachers around the world can use in their noble art of teaching. Thank you again and long live EFL Magazine!

But (more often than not there is always a ‘but’ in our not-always trouble-free flow of time) what about ENGLISH LITERATURE? There are few and far between timid references to it and the authors of the articles seem to fight shy of it. How come? It is not news to say that the Literature of a country is its mirror, its faithful diary where you can find the history of a people portrayed in both sad and happy times. However, unlike history which is a cold annotator and register of events and dates, Literature is the reproduction or representation of real life made with the medium of the written language. Like photography or painting, Literature tries to catch reality in its essence, giving it an emblematic content and form in which we find ourselves with our human weaknesses and strengths. Literature is a treasure trove of information about people from all different walks of life, represented in a pleasant, engaging way.

While other disciplines such as science, maths and so on, are monothematic and deal with a single specific section of knowledge, Literature is polyhedric. In order to represent life in its totality, it delves into the innermost recesses of outer reality and man’s soul and taps all other branches of knowledge, freely exploits them and feeds on them. But the life force, the sap which allows it to live and act is ‘words’ or ‘the word’.

Language and words

Each single word counts. Words distinguish man from animals; they can destroy or build a relationship. Language has weight and power because it can be right or wrong, it can hurt or heal, unite or divide, spread fear or nourish peace, close doors or open windows, it can build bridges. Words modulate themselves and change continually according to times, situations and speakers. They are never neutral or dumb, they always communicate something. They are living creatures that need and want to be looked after, cherished and valued. Unfortunately, people sometimes forget that, they are unaware of that because they are always in a hurry. It is not easy to find the right words at the right time, the words that fit our mind and soul. In this dreadful plight, the cure that can come to our aid is silence, active listening and empathy.

John Keats (1795-1821),
a priest of poetry and beauty

Through silence, listening and empathy with an ancient Greek piece of art, an urn, J. Keats created one of the best poems in the world: ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1819). Either it was the product of his poetic genius or he must have been in a state of grace when, as if by magic, this poem was born. That magic act of creation repeats itself every time the reader utters the very first word of the poem: ‘thou’. ‘Thou’, the archaic form of ‘you’, is the personal pronoun that puts a person in touch with another, with a strong desire to communicate. Here the poet is in front of an urn and, with a certain awe, he looks at it, listens to it, empathizes with it and … talks to it. ‘Thou’, this archaic monosyllabic word that starts the poem, puts the reader in the same place and position of the poet, and the conversation between reader and the past unfolds, with questions and answers, like a conversation between two friends that have not met for a long time.


Now, in order to prove my case, to show the importance and role of Literature in society, it would be natural and logical to analyse and comment the five stanzas ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ consists of, but I am not going to do that: there are already hundreds of  invaluable comments written by people more qualified than me. Those who are interested can find them in bookshops, libraries and school anthologies or elsewhere. Mine is just an invitation to return to this ode, to read it and pass it to younger generations, given the artistic, philosophical and existential message it contains. The result, the prize for those who will perform the task, who will go through its reading, is assured: it is the last word in the last line of the first stanza, ‘ecstasy’.  

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