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Literature Before 1660

ENGL 020.301
instructor(s):
MWF 1:00 pm
fulfills requirements:
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major

This survey course is designed to introduce students to early English literature, covering a period of roughly eight hundred years from its very beginnings in a scarcely recognizable language to the beginning of something called modernity. What can reasonably be “covered,” or, in the cartographic curricular language, “surveyed,” across such a tremendous stretch of history? In the period described, England grew from a cultural and political backwater to a nation-state poised to become a global hegemon; the religious cataclysms of the Reformation shook the foundations of faith and political power across Europe; Europeans “discovered” territories new to them in the Americas and began to colonize them even as they implemented a global trade in human chattel; the English language developed from a mongrel little marginal vernacular into the “King’s English” that would take over the world along with the English empire. How can developments on such a colossal scale be traced in a limited selection of literary texts in the fourteen-week space of a semester? Our readings, organized by genre—lyric, drama, romance, and epic—will trace a number of itineraries across the landscape of the “premodern.” We will center our readings on development of the analytical skills associated with close reading, developing a robust terminology that will enable us to pose keen questions about how the properties of literature serve to construct representations of gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, and nation—and perhaps even occasionally posit answers to them. Readings will include the Lais of Marie de France, the anonymous Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the travel narratives of the fictitious John Mandeville and the very real politician Thomas More, the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, the poems of John Donne and Katherine Philips, Edmund Spenser’s expansive allegorical romance The Faerie Queene, and John Milton’s great Christian epic Paradise Lost. Assignments will include two analytical essays and two take-home examinations.