If you’ve ever studied English in a university setting, you’ve probably got at least one giant, brand name, brick of a literature anthology stuffed under your bed or holding up an off-kilter coffee table. These books are not only a pain to carry around, but they’re also a pain because of their closed approach to literature. Of course, an intro class cannot cover everything that there is to cover, but which texts make it into these anthologies is telling of our attitudes towards literature, and indicative of our approach to literary history. No matter which monolithic anthology you were required to purchase, chances are it purports to supply you with everything important that you need to read in English. Unfortunately, these anthologies usually fail in this regard, and not only when it comes to contemporary radical poetics.
Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun, edited by Pamela Norris, avoids many of the pitfalls of big anthologies in its selection and presentation of medieval English poetry and prose. The first advantage of this book is that each poem is accompanied with either a manuscript illumination or a medieval painting. The inclusion of visual art with the poems not only makes this anthology far more beautiful than the typical first year anthology printed on low-grade tissue paper, but it also generates a more complex and less anachronistic reading experience. We are here reading poems from an era where books were rare, expensive, richly illuminated objects, and where many audience members relied heavily on visual arts to convey messages obscured by their inability to read text independently. It seems fitting that works from this era should be read alongside images that enhance the meaning of the text. There is nothing definite or absolute about the bland, times new roman presentation of medieval texts in typical literature anthologies, and rather than being an overwrought gimmick, the inclusion of visual art with medieval texts enhances the reading of these works.
By including or excluding works from an anthology, editors have the opportunity to construct a particular vision of the material from which they are selecting. In Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun, Norris achieves an interesting if precarious balance between challenging our preconceptions about the Middle Ages, while at the same time avoiding a revisionist approach to history. While Norris samples from Chaucer several times in the slim anthology, she frames these selections with less frequently anthologised, anonymous poems. Of all her selections, the most interesting is the passage Norris has chosen from The Book of Margery Kempe. Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438) was a travelling mystic whose main calling card was having very loud, long, and public weeping fits. Her writing was known only in excerpt until 1934, when a complete manuscript was uncovered. Suddenly, we found that Margery, who in excerpt was described as an anchoress (a religious recluse walled into a cell) turned out to be a world-travelling rabble-rouser. In Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun, Norris selects a passage where Margery takes to the choppy seas in a small boat, a selection that flies in the face of the centuries of the misquoting that Kempe’s text endured. Norris does, however, also include several misogynist clippings from chivalric romances and religious poems dealing with The Fall. By selecting a passage about travel from The Book of Margery Kempe, yet still including less savoury pieces deriding women, Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun reframes literary history where reframing is due, yet still avoids denying the unpleasant truth.
Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun is a well-edited and charming presentation of medieval verse, prose, and art. More importantly, however, this type of anthology can inspire a critical look at the standardised anthologies that we are often prescribed as the cure to English literature. Even when the content of the anthology is centuries old, the inclusion and exclusion of works from an anthology is no less political. Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun is not only pleasing to the eye, it’s a reminder that a critical eye should be turned to all anthologies, particularly those that appear to be presenting a neutral and factual canon.