Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Topics in 18th Century British Literature

ENGL 540.301
instructor(s):

This course will address the question "what makes eighteenth-century British literature and culture modern?" We will consider several themes in prose fiction, plays, and poems that allow us to define this modernity: the individual vis-a-vis social formations; the dynamic relation between the local, the provincial, and the nation; the equally vexed relationship between nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and empire. We will also examine the different forms literary self-consciousness takes in these texts (writers attend to matters of form and cultural function, attempt to demarcate the "literary" from the "non-literary," argue for a public culture that takes seriously their concerns and creativity) in order to understand what such writing can teach us about the pleasures and vicissitudes of the creative and critical imagination in their historical moment, and in ours.

Our texts will be chosen from a list that ranges from writing in the 1660s to that produced over a century later: Dryden (his heroic drama The Conquest of Granada); Behn (The Rover and Oroonoko), Pope (Windsor Forest and The Rape of the Lock); Defoe (Journal of the Plague Year and Robinson Crusoe); Lillo (The London Merchant); Gay (The Beggar's Opera); poems by Duck and Collier that debate each other about labour and land; poems by Goldsmith and Crabbe that do the same about the countryside, enclosure and depopulation; Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, and some anti-slavery poems written late in the century.

We will also read critical essays on the text under consideration or on issues important to the literary and cultural history of the period in order to alert ourselves to the different critical vocabularies and methods that have revitalised interest in "the long eighteenth century" in Britain.