ENGLISH 60: Constructing British Literature, Totally Epic Rendition

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Because English 60 must serve the needs of non-­‐majors in addition to English majors, and because its broad scope, the course presents an incredible challenge in terms of course development and assignment design. According to the Bulletin, it covers “major authors” in the English Tradition; by virtue of its relationship with English 42, a course covering Romantic and Victorian Literature, the first “half” of the survey must give some nod to the notion of coverage of nearly one thousand years of literature.

Because of my research interests in the “New British History,” I find it difficult to embrace the concept of English Literature without also providing students with a sense of its “Britishness” over the course of long period apparently covered by the class. This means grappling with the complex relationships amongst England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as accounting for the Britonic Celts before the Norman Conquest and Anglo-­‐Saxon invasion; it also means establishing the wide-­‐range of ethnic populations that inhabited the British Isles before and after major demographic shifts. And most importantly, it means distilling these broad historical elements into lessons on Literary works that are accessible and compelling for students who may have little reason beyond an “LT” credit to care—initially, at least––about the development of literature and language in England over a great length of time.

With the opportunity to teach this important multiple times, I have designed different versions that provide both a sense of coverage and a way for students to organize their reading by way of larger common textual elements and themes. As a scholar, I am wary of constructing narratives that are too general, too pat, or too strictly linear; as a teacher, I take great care to create a reading list that allows for connections to be made but also complicates simple assumptions about what British Literature is.

In the section I taught in the Spring of 2007, I started the class with 5th century Celtic poetry about youth and age and ended with a nod to William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” using the dichotomy from the latter work as a central facet of the literary texts that came before it; how did British subjects chart their journey or transformation from a state of youth and innocence to age, experience, and knowledge in literary works? How was Britain itself conceived of as a nation that was once newly formed and later one of a long history and established literary traditions? Related to this line of inquiry was the question of how writers treat the notion of the individual in relation to social collectives, whether family, church, country, or some other kind of community that people might be part of or find themselves excluded from. In exploring these basic themes, we were able to consider how writers established distinctly British literary traditions, even as they drew upon Classical or continental works. The texts that enabled these basic organizing strands were diverse, but also clearly connected. After learning about Beowulf and reading Anglo-­Saxon poems such as Dream of the Rood and Judith, students were ready to take on other “epic” journeys, in Arthurian Romances, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, Book 1 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Behn’s Oronooko, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Pope’s Rape of the Lock. The three epics by Spenser, Milton, and Pope were particularly useful in demonstrating continuity in literary aesthetics and tradition and device while also providing clear instances of historical change and creative innovation. In all of our texts, protagonists define some salient feature of the self while also being obliged in some way to behave according to social norms or act on behalf of some larger conception of communal or national need; they also find themselves relieved or deprived of innocence in some fundamental way, finding wisdom through age and experience, and sometimes also feeling profound regret.

In the Spring 2013 and Fall 2014 versions of the course, I focused strictly on epic poems, Beowulf, Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and Rape of the Lock, for the first two thirds of the semester; I then allowed students to literally construct their own syllabus for the remainder of the course, choosing a specified number of works according to a list of different organizing schemes that enabled very different visions of what British Literature is. Their final exam included a take-home portion that requires them to think deeply about what their version and accompanying texts add to the earlier portion of the class and its limited coverage.

 

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