So, as we were going in to see the play last weekend, Janice asked me an interesting question I cdn't answer: who would be Shakespeare if we didn't have Shakespeare?
That is, given that Shakespeare is generally considered the greatest writer in English,* who would play that role if we didn't have Shakespeare's work?
Thinking it over, I think that in that case subsequent history wd have been so different that we can't know the answer. It's not a matter of Milton or Keats stepping into that role: without the key figure everything around and after him wd change. To use a more modern analogy, without The Beatles we don't get a British Invasion headed by the Rolling Stones and The Animals: we don't get any British Invasion at all, nor all the things contingent upon it.
On thinking it over some more, I suspect that in such a world English literature wd be far more like French literature -- that is, in the absence of a superlative native tradition English writers wd have looked even more to continental models than they did in the century or so following W.S.'s time. But that of course is just guessing: the real course of altered history wd be so different that we can't do more than just guess at it.
With my interest in the Canon of literature, and the way works migrate in and out of it, I do find myself musing sometimes over who's up and who's down compared to the canon as it was when I was in grad school, especially given the pressure the academy is under to open up and diversify. Who's in and who's dropping out? Tolkien has benefitted by the shifting tides, and is nearer acceptance now than ever before, while I find myself half-expecting to hear that Milton is being edged towards the exit.
Time will tell.
*indeed, Tolkien thought Shakespeare's achievement had been so great it bent English literature towards drama rather than narrative prose (which he much preferred).