Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Major British Writers 1350-1660

ENGL 020.301
instructor(s):
TR 12-1:30

This course explores the sheer variety of ways that major British writers, from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, sought to invent a distinctively English literature. We will pay special attention to the echoes of classical and continental poetry and prose in Chaucer's House of Fame, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, and Wyatt's Lyrics, asking how these texts negotiate their foreign precursors and convert them to their use. What is England's literary past? Who may be said to contribute to it? How is the problem of English literary history made all the more complex by the onset of the Reformation and the rejection of the real Catholic past to which England's "first" writers belonged? We will read the Shepheardes Calender and the second book of the Faerie Queene in order to determine what place England's great Protestant poet, Edmund Spenser, assigned to poetry, how he thought poems should be read, and what sorts of consequences he was able to imagine for a nation in which poetry was read the wrong way. These readings will lead us to Hero and Leander and Titus Andronicus, as well as to a modest assortment of early pedagogical treatises. We will discover that despite the best efforts of influential theorists of education like Erasmus and Vives, English writers like Marlowe and Shakespeare found in classical texts the patterns and warrants for wildly erotic, violent, and unreformed styles of literary creativity. Finally, we will conclude the semester with Milton who, like all of the writers before us, forces us to question the persuasiveness -- and even the utility -- of referring to the "Middle Ages" and the "Renaissance," to "medieval" and "early modern" kinds of literature. From the vantage of Paradise Lost, we will look back upon a history of strategic manipulations of the concept of the past -- cultural as well as literary -- with the goal of understanding just how crucially those provisional histories inform the claims of subsequent authors to modernity.

Familiarity with Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses will be a real asset for this course, but by no means is it necessary for enrollment. The requirements include regular participation in discussion, two brief essays, a mid-term and a final examination.