These classic quotes might remind you of some of your favorite novels or authors. They might also be appetizers, encouragement to read a book you've heard about but never sought out. In all events, a glimpse into the thoughts of some of our greatest English writers is bound to be illuminating.
William Shakespeare is probably the best-known literary figure, and Hamlet is one of his most popular plays. The skull scene is often parodied, but do you know the impressive address Hamlet says while holding the skull?
In one of the most famous scenes in theatrical history, the Prince of Denmark takes the skull and delivers the following address:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing..
Jane Austen is one of the most popular English authors in the USA. Northanger Abbey expresses well her brilliant analysis of high society and its foibles.
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; -- I remember finishing it in two days -- my hair standing on end the whole time."
"Yes," added Miss Tilney, "and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage Walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it."
"Thank you, Eleanor; - a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions."
Charles Dickens expresses in this novel his brilliant understanding of English character types and Mr. Micawber of David Copperfield is one of his most endearing characterizations.
'I say,' returned Mr. Micawber, quite forgetting himself, and smiling again, 'the miserable wretch you behold. My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!'
'My poor papa's maxim,' Mrs. Micawber observed.
'My dear,' said Mr. Micawber, 'your papa was very well in his way, and Heaven forbid that I should disparage him. Take him for all in all, we ne'er shall—in short, make the acquaintance, probably, of anybody else possessing, at his time of life, the same legs for gaiters, and able to read the same description of print, without spectacles. But he applied that maxim to our marriage, my dear; and that was so far prematurely entered into, in consequence, that I never recovered the expense.' Mr. Micawber looked aside at Mrs. Micawber, and added: 'Not that I am sorry for it. Quite the contrary, my love.' After which, he was grave for a minute or so.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is seen as the prototype detective story, but the popularity of this story format has not diminished Holmes’s greatness. People at the time and still some today believe he is a real, living detective!
Holmes had looked annoyed, but his brow cleared, and he clapped me on the shoulder.
"Well, well, my dear fellow, be it so. We have shared this same room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell. You know, Watson, I don't mind confessing to you that I have always had an idea that I would have made a highly efficient criminal. This is the chance of my lifetime in that direction. See here!" He took a neat little leather case out of a drawer, and opening it he exhibited a number of shining instruments. "This is a first-class, up-to-date burgling kit, with nickel-plated jemmy, diamond-tipped glass-cutter, adaptable keys, and every modern improvement which the march of civilization demands. Here, too, is my dark lantern. Everything is in order. Have you a pair of silent shoes?"
Jane Austen’s short life was rich in literary production and Sense and Sensibility (1811) her first published novel. This quote illustrates both the richness and thoughtfulness of her writing.
“To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!"
"He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper."
"Nay, mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper! -- but we must allow for difference of taste. Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility. Mama, the more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much! He must have all Edward's virtues, and his person and manners must ornament his goodness with every possible charm."
In The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot enables Hunchbacked Philip Wakem to make up for his physical limitations with his intellect and so win the affections of the tragic heroine, Maggie.
“We can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. How can we ever be satisfied without them until our feelings are deadened? I delight in fine pictures; I long to be able to paint such. I strive and strive, and can’t produce what I want. That is pain to me, and always will be pain, until my faculties lose their keenness, like aged eyes. Then there are many other things I long for,”—here Philip hesitated a little, and then said,—“things that other men have, and that will always be denied me. My life will have nothing great or beautiful in it; I would rather not have lived.”
Benjamin Disraeli is best-known as the mid-nineteenth century British Prime Minister who made Queen Victoria Empress of India. He was an accomplished novelist and also used this medium to communicate his political views. From Coningsby:
His countenance was serious. He said in a voice of almost solemn melody: “Nurture your mind with great thoughts. To believe in the heroic makes heroes.” “You seem to me a hero,” said Coningsby in a tone of real feeling, which, half ashamed of his emotion, he tried to turn into playfulness. “I am, and must ever be,” said the stranger, “but a dreamer of dreams.” Then going towards the window and changing into a * familiar tone, as if to divert the conversation, he added: “What a delicious afternoon! I look forward to my ride with delight. You rest here?” “No, I go on to Nottingham, where I shall sleep.” “And I in the opposite direction.” And he rang the bell and ordered his horses. “I long to see your mare again,” said Coningsby. “She seemed to me so beautiful.”
Edgar Allen Poe's short story Eleonora is considered autobiographical, as Poe expresses his own feelings of marital guilt and mental instability. It was first published in 1842.
“I am come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence — whether much that is glorious — whether all that is profound — does not spring from disease of thought — from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in waking, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil.”
Henry Dana’s tale of a nineteenth-century voyage around Cape Horn, Two Years Before the Mast, is written in such beautiful English that you don’t need to be interested in the sea to enjoy it.
It has been found necessary to vest in every government, even the most democratic, some extraordinary, and, at first sight, alarming powers; trusting in public opinion, and subsequent accountability to modify the exercise of them. These are provided to meet exigencies, which an hope may never occur, but which yet by possibility may occur, and if they should, and there were no power to meet them instantly, there would be an end put to the government at once.
So it is with the authority of the shipmaster. It will not answer to say that he shall never do this and that thing, because it does not seem always necessary and advisable that it should be done. He has great cares and responsibilities; is answerable for everything; and is subject to emergencies which perhaps no other man exercising authority among civilized people is subject to. Let him, then, have powers commensurate with his utmost possible need; only let him be held strictly responsible for the exercise of them. Any other course would be injustice, as well as bad policy.
In Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, he explores the cruelty of a private schoolmaster in northern England and the struggles of a teacher to correct the injustices he encounters.
You have heard him speak, and have looked upon his face. Reflect, reflect, before it is too late, on the mockery of plighting to him at the altar, faith in which your heart can have no share—of uttering solemn words, against which nature and reason must rebel—of the degradation of yourself in your own esteem, which must ensue, and must be aggravated every day, as his detested character opens upon you more and more.
Shrink from the loathsome companionship of this wretch as you would from corruption and disease. Suffer toil and labour if you will, but shun him, shun him, and be happy. For, believe me, I speak the truth; the most abject poverty, the most wretched condition of human life, with a pure and upright mind, would be happiness to that which you must undergo as the wife of such a man as this!
The story of Oliver Twist is one of the most popular of Dickens’s works, with the successful screen adaption playing a big part in this. Twist’s experience in the workhouse was based on the author’s own miserable childhood experience.
'There are a good many books, are there not, my boy?' said Mr. Brownlow, observing the curiosity with which Oliver surveyed the shelves that reached from the floor to the ceiling.
'A great number, sir,' replied Oliver. 'I never saw so many.'
'You shall read them, if you behave well,' said the old gentleman kindly; 'and you will like that, better than looking at the outsides,--that is, some cases; because there are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.'
'I suppose they are those heavy ones, sir,' said Oliver, pointing to some large quartos, with a good deal of gilding about the binding.
'Not always those,' said the old gentleman, patting Oliver on the head, and smiling as he did so; 'there are other equally heavy ones, though of a much smaller size. How should you like to grow up a clever man, and write books, eh?'
The Grapes of Wrath is a poignant 1930s portrait of the sharp divides between the dirt poor and wealthy during the Great Depression. The novel helped propel John Steinbeck to international literary fame.
How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it. They sat and looked at it and burned it into their memories. How'll it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know — and know the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on that mattress there — that dreadful pain — that’s you. And the children—if Sam takes his Injun bow an' his long roun' stick, I get to take two things. I choose the fluffy pilla. That's mine. Suddenly they were nervous. Got to get out quick now. Can't wait. We can't wait. And they piled up the goods in the yards and set fire to them.
The Victorian tale Wuthering Heights runs the gamut of emotions in its lively account of the stormy relationship between chief protagonists Heathcliff and Catherine. The only novel by Emily Bronte, it is a firm favorite with lovers of English lit.
"One time, however, we were near quarrelling. He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly.
That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy."
Samuel Smiles was a Victorian clergyman who published what many consider the prototype guide to encourage people to make the most of their own talents. Selt Help was said to be one of the favorite books of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“Riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman,—in spirit and in daily life. He may be honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping,—that is, be a true gentleman. The poor man with a rich spirit is in all ways superior to the rich man with a poor spirit. o borrow St. Paul’s words, the former is as “having nothing, yet possessing all things,” while the other, though possessing all things, has nothing. The first hopes everything, and fears nothing; the last hopes nothing, and fears everything. Only the poor in spirit are really poor. He who has lost all, but retains his courage, cheerfulness, hope, virtue, and self-respect, is still rich. For such a man, the world is, as it were, held in trust; his spirit dominating over its grosser cares, he can still walk erect, a true gentleman”
George Grossmith was a leading Victorian comic actor and musician. Despite the century and more that has passed since publication of The Diary of a Nobody, its satirical portrayal of lower middle class suburban life still brings readers to laughter.
After my work in the City, I like to be at home. What’s the good of a home, if you are never in it? “Home, Sweet Home,” that’s my motto. I am always in of an evening. Our old friend Gowing may drop in without ceremony; so may Cummings, who lives opposite. My dear wife Caroline and I are pleased to see them, if they like to drop in on us.
But Carrie and I can manage to pass our evenings together without friends. There is always something to be done: a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down—all of which I can do with my pipe in my mouth; while Carrie is not above putting a button on a shirt, mending a pillow-case, or practising the “Sylvia Gavotte” on our new cottage piano (on the three years’ system).
George Orwell, Animal Farm
George Orwell, 1984
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows
Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
H.G.Wells, The Time Machine
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Winston S. Churchill, The River War
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the House of the Seven Gables
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
Walter Scott, The Heart of Mid-Lothian
Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South
Maria Edgeworth, The Absentee
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield
Dr. Samuel Johnson, An Introduction To The Political State of Great Britain
Anthony Trollope, The Warden
John Buchan, The 39 Steps
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race
Enid Blyton, Five on a Hike Together