Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Thus Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, in 1701 reviewed a “mongrel half-bred race”: an amalgam of the “Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane,” and later of French and Flemish, that formed the English nation (and the fattest dictionary in the world). Study of earlier English texts thus corresponds remarkably to the current state of English today: a global language, continually enriched by peoples of distant and diverse origins. Nobody has ever owned the English language, or its literatures. But there have been attempts to make the language serve purposes of state— “the King’s English”—and to regulate its usage. This course pays tribute to the wonderful generic and linguistic variety of pre-modern English—and to imaginative texts that have inspired poets and novelists such as Seamus Heaney and Philip Pullman.
Ironically, the text regarded as point of origin for English literary tradition—compulsory reading for English majors in England until very recently—is Beowulf, a tale set not in England at all, but in Germanic and Scandinavian territory. Marie de France, who tells of werewolfs, magical ships and expiring lovers, lived in England but was de France and wrote in French, the language of the ruling class (for three hundred years). The great romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight combines French courtliness with native, Anglo-Saxonish vigor to produce one of the great psychological masterpieces of the language. Geoffrey Chaucer’s most compelling creation is his Wife of Bath; the quest in her tale for what women most desire recently inspired Wendy Steiner’s Freudian opera The Loathly Lady. Chaucer’s fictional medieval Wife bears striking resemblances to a real one: Margery Kempe, a housewife who mothered fourteen children before traveling to Jerusalem; she returned to tell all in her Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in the English language.
The religious Reformation of the 1530s saw England turn from a thousand years of Catholicism (and Celtic Christianity before that) to Protestantism. Poets now needed both to disavow this “superstitious” past while yet saving selected parts of it for the new English Protestant nation. Preeminent here was Edmund Spenser, refashioning the knightly quest to seek Gloriana—the glorious Elizabeth I—among the perfidious deceptions, the smells and bells, of Catholic power. Shakespeare, Elizabeth’s greatest playwright, looks to an enchanting past in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and to an uncertain future in Macbeth, a play to please the new monarch, James VI of Scotland (and James I of England). James’s son, Charles I, marries a Catholic, develops theories of absolute monarchy, and is beheaded by forces of parliament in 1649. We thus end in civil war, a time as poignant and defining in English memory as the American conflict of 1861-5; the sensuous and sometimes surreal poetry of royalist Andrew Marvell thus battles the fierce, dark materials energy of blind puritan parliamentarian, John Milton.
Examination will be by a series of essays and quiz or two; there are no current plans for a midterm or final.