This course is a general introduction to the study of English literature in the context of modern history (roughly 1600-1900). We will focus on some key texts from the English Renaissance, Romanticism, and the modern period.
We will start with what I consider to be the pivotal period in modern history, around 1800, when European civilization (note: this includes the U.S.) began its final, fateful movement toward the world as we know it today. Science, industrialization, globalization, urbanization, democratic revolution, skepticism about Christianity: all of these forces are gathering around 1800. We will approach our discussion of these large historical forces through the spiritual and literary reaction to them that is called Romanticism. We will study a few paragraphs of prose and a few poems by the English poet Wordsworth (1770-1850) as a sample of the most fundamental concerns of the Romantics.
Then we will go back in time to the English Renaissance (around 1600). I’m not starting with this period, even though it’s earlier, because I want you to have the Romantic texts already in mind as something with which to compare and contrast the Renaissance texts.
Poetry, even when it looks simple, requires very slow, very careful reading, and then multiple re-readings. Otherwise you retain practically nothing from it. Thus we will devote a lot of attention to a small number of poems in the first half of the course.
Important: you should bring to class whatever text we’re studying, and you should follow along in your own text when I read from it. Most students find it helpful to mark the passages being discussed, and to make marginal notes. When you speak in class about a text, and especially when you write about one, you will be expected to make frequent, precise reference to the exact wording of that text as the basis for your remarks or questions. Vagueness is your worst enemy, and mine.
All the readings for the first few weeks of the course are contained in the course packet, which is available at Ram’s Copy Center, 4144 University Way.
We will also read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. These texts are available at the University Book Store. You are encouraged to get the editions I have ordered; the Shakespeare and the Conrad are Norton Critical Editions that contain critical essays that you will need to read for this class. The Achebe volume does not contain such additional readings, but if you don’t have the same edition you will not be able to follow along in class when I discuss specific passages. (You might be able to find used copies of these same editions online.)
Lecture and reading schedule:
Jan. 6, 8: Romanticism. Reading: selections from Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, discussion of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems (in course packet).
Jan. 10, 13: Romanticism continued. Brief discussion on “Tintern Abbey.” (Note: this is a long and quite difficult poem; you will need to work especially hard on this one.)
Jan. 15, 17: Romanticism continued. Focus on “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” Reading: in the course packet, immediately following “Tintern Abbey,” there are 3 pages of typescript. These are my remarks on the Brooks and Bateson readings of “A Slumber.” Read the poem a couple of times, then the brief selections from Brooks and Bateson, then read my remarks, then study “A Slumber” very carefully and figure out which reading of the poem, Brooks’s or Bateson’s, you think is the better one, and why.
Jan 20: no class, MLK day.
Jan. 22, 24: Brief introduction to anti-Romantic or “formalist” theory of literary criticism. Reading: Selections from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” (date: about 1920) by T. S. Eliot; Barthes, “Death of the Author” (1967).
Jan. 27, 29, 31: Introduction to Shakespeare and the Renaissance (date: about 1600). Reading: Shakespeare, selected sonnets. I will send you guides to reading these poems. Formalist literary theory once again, now with a focus on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Reading: Frye, “How True a
Feb. 3: Introduction to the contemporary “ethico-political” interpretation of literary texts. Reading: Sedgwick, “Swan in Love: The Example of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.”
Feb 5: Introduction to the historical contextualization of literary texts. Reading: Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act I.
Feb 7: Mid-term exam in lecture session
Feb. 10, 12, 14: Merchant of Venice continued, roughly one act per day
Feb.17: no class, President’s day
Feb. 19, 21: Critical readings on “Merchant”: Derek Cohen, “Shylock and the Idea of the Jew” (in the Norton Critical Edition that you should have.) René Girard, “To Entrap the Wisest” (in your course packet).
Feb. 24, 26, 28, March 2: Heart of Darkness and critical readings in your Norton Edition.
March 4, 6, 9, 11: Things Fall Apart
March 13: Final exam in regular lecture session
There will be a mid-term exam and a final exam given during your lecture session on February 7th and March 13th. The exams will each count for 30 per cent of your grade. The other 40 per cent will come from five 2 page papers that you will write for your discussion section. I will give you precise instructions on the writing of each of these papers as it comes up, every two weeks.