The concept of canon is something very crucial and significant for all of us. We read literature on the basis of canons designed by different people as we are informed about the quality and authenticity of some works while others are regarded as low in quality in terms of their inclusion in canon. This article consists of an understanding to the concept of canon.
The idea of canon came from the Christian church. The ambition was to create a list of religious texts that everyone would accept as authentic and authoritative. This concept entered literature as literary people like Leavis and Palgrave sorted out their lists of literary texts suitable to be read according to their own criteria. This list of literary texts was also called canon.
Palgrave in his Golden Treasury selected poems on his own set criteria. He excluded the narrative, didactic and humorous poems from Golden Treasury, which was a canon, a list of poems, collected by Palgrave. Leavis, in his ‘Great Tradition’ stated Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad as great English Novelists again establishing a canon like Palgrave. According to Eliot, the ‘traditional’ texts from Homer onwards should be read, so, he has also adjusted a canon.
Eaglestone describes that the development of canon by Eliot had two consequences. First the canon is considered the storehouse of Western values and that the Western values are the universal one and secondly, if a text has not the Western values, or in Eliot’s words, universal values, they should not be a part of canon.
People, who have set up the canon, have their own ideas of authenticity, authority, nationalism and literary values. Leavis had a different criteria for his selection, his sense of authority and authenticity were different from Palgrave’s. The reasons for developing canons are questionable as every person has a different criterion for sorting out a list of literary works.
Firstly, before establishing a canon, the judge of literary texts has his own presuppositions and interests through which, he judges the artistic or aesthetic value of a text. So, a person’s favourites and his judgement can have a strong affect on us as we are the readers. Secondly, the canon is self-perpetuating, which means it continues to be as such for ages. A person who has read the canonical works refers them to others as great and traditional and this processing of referring goes on. Thirdly, canon sets up a criterion by which, texts are judged. For example, as Eliot has said that a text should have universal (Western) values, so, every judge will try to find the said values in a text. Lastly, the canon plays an important role in creating a sense of identity. People, reading the same canon, share a combined culture and collective national identity. Toni Morrison associates the idea of canon building with empire building and describes the defence of canon as national defence. So, the idea of canon is closely related to national identity.
One canon breaks and gives rise to another canon. To get rid of canon is impossible as new canon takes place of the old canon. The idea of canon is still very powerful and there is no sign of its end. It appears to be germinating again and again from the old seeds.
References Eaglestone, Robert. (2002). Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students. London: Routledge.