MASTERWORKS OF BRITISH LITERATURE
In Masterworks of British Literature I, we will survey significant pieces of literature from the beginnings of the English language to the Renaissance. The course spans from roughly 900 AD to 1600AD. Obviously, we can’t cover everything written during such a vast period. Therefore, we will examine a selection of works that I believe both represent a particular cultural period and are central to a study of literature.
I will divide the works that we will read by their correspondence to the growth of the English language. Up until the Renaissance, the English language developed through three general periods: old English, middle English and early Modern English.
In the period of old English, we will look at a few Anglo-Saxon poems, written during a period when England was an infant country. We will also look at selections from the epic old English poem, Beowulf.
In the period of middle English, we will spend some time reading the wonderfully entertaining knight’s romance, Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight. We will use a version translated from the Middle English into our own modern English by Helen Vendler. It is not difficult to read, and I have had many students tell me that it is the most enjoyable poem that they have ever read!
For the late Medieval period, we will look at a selection of stories from The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the most important and enjoyable works in the British canon. I will offer versions in both the Middle English and translated into modern English. By reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and “The Pardoner’s Tale,” you will gain one of the greatest footholds on understanding a vast array of British literature. Both the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner are significant influences on Shakespeare’s development of character in his plays.
For the Renaissance (early modern English), we will examine selections from the three major sonnet cycles by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. Some of the most important education in the interpretation of and written response to literature you will gain from reading and analyzing these sonnets. They offer perfect places from where to gain a lasting understanding of metaphor, simile, symbol, personification . . . all of the forms of figurative language that are integral toward discussing and writing interpretations of any piece of literature.
We will also examine the history and culture that surrounds particular works of literature. Just as important as the historical context, we will understand the ways in which literature of the past can relate to our experience with life in the present. One of the wonderful aspects of reading literature is realizing how poems, stories and plays written long ago can inform your own life and your own understanding of the world.
I place a lot of emphasis upon open discussion concerning what we read. Interpretation requires openness, the ability to entertain different perspectives and possibilities.
Soon, I will post more information concerning my philosophy towards teaching and what I require in the class.
In the meantime, feel free to e-mail me with any questions.