Welcome aboard the literature section’s new series, Desert Island Lit. In this clearly completely original new feature, staff and students from around the English Department tell us the literature that would make it to a desert island with them. Casting away, our first guest is Professor Stephen Regan. Will he palm us off with a copy of Robinson Crusoe or suggest a bounty of literary treasures?
You can take five pieces of literature with you – what would they be?
My five works of literature to take to the Desert Island would have to include Shakespeare. Ideally, I would like to take the Complete Works. I’m sure I would appreciate that great work of island literature The Tempest all the more. If I’m not allowed the Complete Works, then I’ll gladly settle for Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In addition, I would ask for James Joyce’s Ulysses (a novel that just gets better and better each time you read it) and Derek Walcott’s Omeros (a modern Homeric epic set in the Caribbean). I would take the poems of W.B. Yeats, which are bold and beautiful and perfect for reading aloud, and I would spend my time on the island learning them by heart. My final choice would be the poems of my favourite poet, Seamus Heaney.
If you could take the literature from just one era or movement, which would it be?
It would have to be the modernist literature of the twentieth century. As we move further into our own new century, the massive achievement of modernist art and literature becomes all the more impressive. The Desert Island would be populated by Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and there’s more than enough there to keep any reader busy for several years.
You can take two writers with you for company – who? Do you think they would get on?
Two writers for company? I can think of writers I wouldn’t want on the island together. I can’t imagine Yeats and Joyce getting on especially well. I’m drawn to Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin, and I suspect that they would find much in common, temperamentally. Larkin would probably love being on a desert island, and there would be no shortage of ‘the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’. After a while, though, I imagine the mood with those two would be pervasively melancholic, and I’d need some cheering up. So, I’d go with Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, as I know they were great friends and they would get on fantastically well. They would both be well acquainted with living on islands, as well. Heaney was so sociable and generous in all respects. It’s hard to accept that he is no longer with us. There would be lashings of whiskey and rum, good banter, and poetry recited well into the night.
A piece of literature that is a ‘guilty pleasure’ – if such a thing exists.
It sometimes feels like a guilty pleasure when you pick up a book that might not be regarded as ‘literature’ in a formal, academic sense, but I like crossing boundaries and reading books that don’t always appear on the literature syllabus, especially works written for children. I’m a great fan of Robert Louis Stevenson, especially Kidnapped and A Child’s Garden of Verses. I’d probably take Wind in the Willows to the island. It’s an enchanting work – flawless in its style and impeccable in its moral vision.
What is your favourite quotation, or words to live by on the island?
Words to live by. I keep returning to Shakespeare’s sonnets over and over again, and especially to those lines celebrating friendship, as with Sonnet 30: ‘But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restored, and sorrows end’. Yeats, too, is good on friendship: ‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / And say my fortune was I had such friends’. The rhymes are similar, aren’t they? In both cases, friends make amends for what ends.
Finally, a non-literary question: what would you take as your luxury item?
The luxury item I would like on the island is my favourite Irish whiskey. It’s called Writers’ Tears. I’ll need more than one bottle, though.
Thanks, Stephen! Our next guest will be third year student Lily Williams. Revisit Desert Island Lit in a fortnight to discover her literary loves…