Introduccion a la literatura inglesa, by J. L. Borges is an extraordinary work.
It is extraordinary for its confidence. One is reminded of the contrast between the scribes of the day and Jesus. Usually bit more understated than our Lord, Borges makes his own way through English literature, sometimes blandly repeating commonplace information, but always with the air of imparting a vital insight—which thing it usually turns out to be.
His style is compressed and brisk, and such a terse, quick movement along the dark subway line of time creates continual flashes of insight. What is extraordinary here is not his brevity, but the positively Aristotelian insight he generates from the approach.
Borges’ learning was enormous, and his concise sentences always gesture at his mastery. Doing an overview of English letters in one hundred pages seems neither wise nor well-informed, but the sureness with which Borges carries it off reassures us of his wisdom and the information employed.
That shows the sure judgment of his style. This is also an extraordinary work for its judgment of the authors. He sides with Johnson on the question of Milton’s Paradise Lost (that everybody feels it is a great work, but not great enough to finish), and then names Sampson Agonistes Milton’s masterpiece—with good reasons, and one is inclined to concede he has made a worthwhile point.
Among the authors Borges dwells on is G.K. Chesterton. I doubt many people would place Chesterton among the top tier of English writers, but it shows how unencumbered by prejudice and unorthodox Borges felt he could be. It may also show the limitations of his exposure (mention Swinbourne and omit Pope?), but it really gives rise not to doubts of Borges’ competence but instead to the reason behind the limitation of space. Borges claims, in his preface, he wants to be representative of each period and stimulate interest. I think he has succeeded admirably, just consider what Chesterton represents.
Borges celebrates Gibbon for his drolleries, practices a bit on Graves [“His curious and attractive volume The White Goddess attributes the origin of all the poetry in the world to the myth of the White Goddess, partially invented by him.”], is penetrating on Joyce, a bit baffled by Eliot and altogether interesting throughout.
One is tempted to think the blind bard of Buenos Aires was winking at his readers from time to time, was on the whole perhaps not always being entirely serious—one gathers he admired Boswell for this a great deal. I remember reading Richard Armour’s works on British and American literature when exposed to the subjects in high school. They were illuminating volumes, and I have no doubt that behind the jokes was a lot of love and insight. A whole lot more in command of English letters now, I find Borges full of that kind of love and insight which results in the sort of sane proportion and sufficient penetration that leaves a lingering memory of order and a piqued interest. Because like Armour, Borges’ attitude—extraordinarily cheerful and still masterful, the briskness seeming all easy while freighted with insight—makes the wisdom of the literary wit shine forth.