English 60: Constructing British Literature, The Bawdy, The Body, and the Soul

L0031325 Hieronymus Fracastorius (Girolamo Fracastoro) shows the shep

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 61, 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 facile or generalized notions of what British literature is.

In the Spring of 2010, I changed the focus of my section of English 60/41 to reflect a different set of interests; this time, I organized the class around “the body, the bawdy, and the soul.” This way of conceiving the course allowed for the inclusion of a significant number of canonical works, while also shifting my previous course’s focus on the self to the relationship between the physical self and spiritual concerns. The language of the body in literary culture underscores conflicts between pleasure and moral virtue in every century of early British history.

Readings for the course began with Old English riddles and Judith, and included Julian of Norwich’s Showings; selections from medieval Arthurian literature and lore, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Early modern works included poetry by Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Lady Mary Wroth, John Donne, George Herbert, Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell; excerpts from Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland; and Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. From the Restoration and 18th century, we read Book 9 of Paradise Lost; poems by Aphra Behn, the Earl of Rochester, Jonathan Swift, and Katherine Phillips; letters on vaccinations from the Turkish Embassy by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; Swift’s A Modest Proposal; scientific writing from members of the Royal Academy; and multiple selections related to the slave trade in Britain and its abolition.

All of the works we studied invoked the body and its parts as a literary trope and literal object. Students were invited to consider the physical self as a symbol of the state and political issues pertinent to the national body/body politic; as a personal or private thing whose integrity, safety, and heath are challenged or compromised by a larger force, from religion to social collectives (parliament, the “court,” land owners, etc.), and national imperatives; and as an object to be celebrated or denigrated aesthetically as a source of pleasure and pain. That the body was also simultaneously connected to and separate from the soul meant that the literature also figures it as a threat to, or means of, salvation.

As in the section of English 41 that I taught several semesters prior, this course used close reading papers to help tie all the sometimes disparate texts together, and to enable students to see and make connections between works in multiple ways. The prompts for these papers serve as an additional guide through the material, asking them to think about the works more specifically than we would be able to do on any given day in class. The exams for the course—including the final exam––also required a significant amount of writing. Through questions that demand knowledge as well as the ability to reflect analytically on passages from literary texts in the moment, they aimed at giving students an opportunity to show what they had learned, but also encouraged them, in their responses, to keep learning as they wrote.