English 40: Major British Poets, 1700-1860: Poetry and Painting.

Professor Michael Gamer.

Meets: Tuesday and Thursday, 11:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (on June 30 we will meet until 1:00 p.m.)


Course Description:

This course will explore the changes that took place in British poetry after the death of Pope: beginning with the poetry of Thomas Gray; moving through major Romantic writers like Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley; and ending with Victorians Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Christina Rossetti. As this is a five-week accelerated course, we'll coordinate every reading with visits to London art collections like the Tate and the Royal Academy, to graveyards like Highgate Cemetery, and to bazaars like Bartholomew Fair or the British Museum (Another kind of bazaar). Our goal will be to survey British poetry's changes in connection to other accompanying art forms--landscape, historical, and Pre-Raphaelite painting certainly, but also music and theater as well.


Books:  Colley, Britons (Yale)             

Vaughn, Romantic Art (Norton)

Blake, Songs of Innocence & Songs of Experience

Pope, The Rape of the Lock (Dover)

Coleridge, (any edition of the poems)

Hilton, The Preraphaelites


Writing:  During it you will primarily be keeping a writing  journal, which I will read a few times during the semester to make suggestions for paper topics. By the beginning of the fifth week of the course, I'd like you to hand me a 2-page proposal for your final paper (15 pp.), which will be due Sept. 1, and be worth 50% of your grade. I will meet with you regarding your proposal and make recommendations for the paper. Obviously, if you wish to write the proposal and meet with me earlier, that's fine.


The Writing Journal is worth 50% of your grade. Ideally, it should at least do the following things:

1. Your entries should be made both before and after class meetings. Realize also that a "text" can be what we're reading, seeing, or experiencing. You should probably think about spending as much time on the paintings (and even the theatre scenery you see) as on the poems.

2. You might want to begin with "First Impressions": not what you liked or didn't like, but what you noticed. Often the way literary texts make meaning is through their excesses--what is noticeable? Or, they make their meaning precisely at those moments that are not necessary to propel the text forward--what innocent and unnecessary details matter?

3. You should, before class, write out questions that you want answered--bring your journal to class and ask them. Whenever possible, try not to make these trivial questions like "When was Coleridge born?" We have introductions to answer those questions. You should gear your questions toward asking why an author represents something in the way s/he does, etc.

4. You should, before and after class, think about the relation between the text's form and its content. What is experimental or almost dogmatically traditional? What previous authors are being paid homage? Why this form? Why not another?

5. I would like you to focus on a few key passages in your journal entries and analyze them closely--connnect them to other passages. Begin the process of writing papers here.

6. As the course progresses, you should feel free--as a matter of fact, PLEASE DO THIS--to pitch possible essay ideas to me. Please be detailed when you do this, but I will respond especially to these parts of your journal. The rest of the journal is more for you than for me, though I will grade your level of engagement.


I will collect the final version of your writing journal with your final paper on September 1st. Along the way, I'll make notes to myself so as to keep track of your progress in it. I'll formulate the final grade on the journal based on my notes and on the final version of it. I do this because what I care most about is that you keep thinking about the texts even after we've read them. So, please don't think it's somehow cheating to reread the materials in August, and to continue writing in your journal about the materials. It might be that some of you will have huge epiphanies about the early plays we read only after you read the Preraphaelite paintings and poems with which we'll close the course.


Weeks #1-#2 (June 30, July 2, 7): The Early 18th Century: Swift, Pope, Gay, Hogarth, and the City.

June 30: Read Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock. Read any material on Pope in the coursepack.

July 2: Finish Rape of the Lock. Read poems by Swift and Montagu and any material in the coursepack. Begin reading from Ronald Paulson's William Hogarth: His Life, His Art, His Times (coursepack)

July 7: Read John Gay's "Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London." Finish reading William Hogarth.

Think about the following questions while you are reading:

1. The Rape of the Lock is an urban poem and is especially obsessed with the perfection of youthful beauty--especially female, but also male. Does Pope celebrate this kind of beauty whole-heartedly? Does Pope cultivate this kind of beauty in his own poetry?

2. Usually, poetry (and art in general) in the 18th century aims to create order out of the chaos of real life, and beauty out of ugliness. Obviously, Swift and Montagu are interested in other things. What is their poetry about? Why do they write a shorter line? What poetic traditions do they write against?

3. Why does Gay make Trivia a goddess, and why does this goddess prevail over his poem? How is his poem like a walk? What does it cover? What does it do formally?

4. Compare The Rape of the Lock (or any of the poems) to Hogarth's most famous satirical work (The Harlot's Progress, The Rake's Progress, and Marriage a la Mode). Do these texts share common habits of satire? How does satire work? Do its comic and moral forces come from different places or artistic practices?

5. Perhaps most importantly: What parts of London are satirized here? What part of the population? Do the demographics of these texts (what kind of people they're about) determine what kind of satire they engage in?

Excursion: Week #1: Tues: Museum London. Wednesday: Dickens Walk. Friday: Soane's Museum (for everybody).


Weeks #2-3 (July 9, 14, 16): The Later 18th C: Picturesque, Sublime, Beautiful.

July 9: Sensibility, Sympathy, and Graveyard Poetry. Read poems in coursepack by Gray. For this class we will meet in the seminar room at 11:00 a.m. and go to Hampstead. We'll hold class in a graveyard, and then go to Keats's House.

July 14: Landscape Aesthetics:  Read ch. 1-2 of Romantic Art, then poems by Coleridge: "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," "Frost at Midnight," "The Nightingale," "Kubla Khan." Read Mary Robinson's "The Haunted Beach" and William Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" (coursepack).

July 16: Romantic London. Read Robinson's "London." Read Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" and London (Book 7 of his epic, The Prelude; about 800 lines long, I think, and in coursepack).


1. What is the most frequent aestheic category invoked in these poems? What the least? Do you notice any patterns between the subject matter of a poem and the kinds of landscape it describes? Does the landscape provide a way into a subject for the poet, or do you find that the poet's state of mind creates the landscape?

2. The first three Coleridge poems I'm having you read have been called "Conversation Poems" (the name taken from "The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem"). Is there a relation in these poems between conversational tone and the fact that these poems travel? What kinds of travel do they engage in, and over what kinds of landscape?

3. I want you to think about perspective and its role in the Robinson "London" poem and in the two Wordsworth poems for July 16. Get out your map of London and see if you can reconstruct what Wordsworth sees from the center of Westminster Bridge (picture him in the middle of the bridge). Now trace, if possible, what parts of London provide the setting for Robinson's poem and for the "London" book of The Prelude. What does the geography tell you?

4. Contrast the Robinson and Wordsworth "London" poems for July 16. Why do both writers employ lists? Does London have an architecture or an organizing principle here? How about in the Westminster Bridge sonnet?

Excursion: Week #2: Thurs: Hampstead. Professor O'Connor will meet us around 1:15 p.m. Week #3: Tues: Tate Gallery. Wed: Courts in morning. Thurs: Victoria and Albert Museum.


Week #4 (July 21-3): Blake. Reading: Read Chapter 3-5, 7 of Romantic Art

July 21: Read all of Songs of Innocence. July 23: Read all of Songs of Experience.


1. Concentrate on the relationship between country and city, especially in the Songs of Innocence. Do they oppose one another? What else opposes one another in these books?

2. What poems go together from each book besides the ones that share a common name? Are there poems from each volume of the Songs that are in dialogue with one another?

3. To what extent does Blake participate in the aesthetic and painterly traditions of his time? What do his poetry and painting not do?

4: Perhaps most importantly: Given what a marvelous illustrator and artist Blake is in the paintings in the Tate Gallery, why are the illustrations to the Songs so different? What do you think he's trying to do? recreate?

5. Blake did his famous 1795 paintings right after he completed Songs of Experience. Do you see any common threads? Do the paintings in any way complete the Songs?

Excursion: Week #4. Tues: Zoo. Thurs: Tate for Blake and Preraphaelites.



Week #5: (July 28-30): Late Romanticism, Early Victorianism. Reading: This week: Reread Hilton's The Preraphaelites.

July 28: Read John Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "The Eve of St. Agnes," "To Autumn."

July 30: Read Tennyson's "Mariana" and "The Lady of Shalott." Read selected poetry of Christina  and Dante Rossetti.


1. I'd like you to think again about the importance of details in both the poetry and the painting later influenced by it. Contrast first the sublime of Turner (where things are indistinct) with the precision of Constable or the Preraphaelites. What kind of effect are these painters going for? If not realism, then what?

2. Now think about the kind of sumptuousness that you see in Keats' poetry, where all is either ripe, on the verge of rotting, or rotting. When does Keats pile on images? When is he sparse? Why?

3. If Preraphaelite painting began with a kind of nostalgia for medieval art and its lack of realism, then why does it almost immediately become flooded with female figures and desire? What is going on with femininity and desire in these paintings and in the poetry we're reading?

4. To what extent is Blake a precursor to the Preraphaelites? In what way?

Excursion: Tues: National Gallery and Portrait Gallery. Thurs: Ripper tour.