ENGLISH 20.601 -- Major British Writers 1350-1660

Spring semester, 2004
Wednesday, 6-9 P.M.
Lea Library, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

INSTRUCTOR: Daniel Traister
Email: traister@pobox.upenn.edu
Phone: 215 898 7088 (voicemail: 7089)
Office: 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Office hours: call or email in advance


This course surveys some of the literature written in English from the end of the fourteenth to the middle of the seventeenth centuries. Intended to introduce students to the literary history of late Medieval and Renaissance England, it emphasizes works by major authors, among them the anonymous Gawain poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and John Milton.

The class will pay attention to the development of a number of literary forms and genres, including the ballad, epigram, masque, ode, pastoral, play, rhyme, and sonnet; to the cultural contexts of vernacular writing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, among them religion, gender, education, and class; and to the concept of "periods" -- "the Middle Ages," "the Renaissance" -- by which writers and contexts are further distinguished from one another. Assigned readings, lectures, discussions, and papers will emphasize the development of skills necessary for reading and writing knowledgeably and critically about English literature in these early periods.


The success of this course depends entirely on your willingness to be engaged by the material and by each other. You need to keep up with the reading and to read carefully, but you also need to be adventurous about the interpretations that you offer. Take risks, draw connections, ask questions, and do not despair in the face of complexity. Above all, talk to one another during our class meetings. The instructor will facilitate discussion and suggest some broader historical and cultural contexts for the material that we read, but a good deal of the direction and momentum of our conversation will be for you to determine.

Class participation is a very serious matter and will count for 20% (one-fifth) of your final grade. You will receive a letter grade for the contributions that you make to our discussions. You must arrive promptly for each class. Unexcused absences are not permitted, especially since we meet only once a week and must cover a great deal of ground -- literary, historical, and chronological -- in each session. Habitual lateness and/or more than one unexcused absence during the semester will result in the deduction of one-third of a letter grade from your final grade. Two or more unexcused absences before the end of the drop period will cause you to be dropped from the class. Five unexcused absences during the semester will result in a failing grade for the course.


The formal work for the seminar consists of several written assignments: three short papers (250-500 words, or 1-2 pages, maximum) and one longer paper (1500 words, or 5 pages, maximum), all on topics specified in the syllabus. All written assignments must be submitted at the beginning of class on the relevant due date. No extensions will be granted without an appropriate excuse from the College Office or Student Health Center. Unexcused late work will receive a failing grade.

You may have quizzes (both announced and unannounced) in this class. There will be a final examination.

In general, the instructor appreciates good writing. He will look with disfavor upon essays that are poorly written. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking.



It is your responsibility to be familiar with the relevant sections of the University's Code of Academic Integrity. Inevitably, all work is collaborative: you will as a matter of course draw on and respond to the work of scholars, instructors, and other students. But your work must also be original: its central ideas, questions, or ways of considering problems must be your own. Acknowledge your intellectual debts. Any student who commits academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade for the course.


The single best resource for readers of older (and also newer) English-language works is the Oxford English Dictionary. OED is freely available to Penn students through the Library's website. It is also found in its various printed forms in Reference Rooms throughout Penn and the region. This dictionary provides simple "definitions." But also, and much more importantly, it offers historical definitions, recording how a word has been used over time. These histories, and not just "the definition," are what you want to learn to use when you use OED. They allow you to see the range of different, competing, or overlapping usages and meanings any given word might have made available to someone using it during the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, or any other century, in addition to its primary, "obvious," or present-day denotative values.

In Van Pelt Library, the Furness Memorial [Shakespeare] Library, located on the 6th floor, has many additional dictionaries, guides, and studies specifically devoted to study of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Furness also has some materials to assist readers of earlier (medieval) and later (seventeenth-century) works of English literature. Dictionaries of slang and of erotic or sexual terms (often found in love poetry) are likely to prove particularly useful. (Those of you who have read Shakespeare will already know why.) Because these materials do not circulate, they are always there for your use.


Texts are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center (130 South 34th Street, at Sansom Street).

  1. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. ISBN 0393947734

  2. John Lennard, The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0198711492

  3. An easily accessible short history of England (or the United Kingdom) can be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica via the Library's webpage -- that is, you do NOT have to buy this work -- as United Kingdom. (NOTE: The URL may differ, depending on where the computer from which you are accessing the site is located.) No specific schedule of assignments from this online text are made in the syllabus below, but you should read at least the sections running from "The 14th century / Edward II (1307-27)" to "Commonwealth and Protectorate". It would, in fact, be useful to read as much of the article, including its "Introduction" and its sections on "Land," "People," "Economy," "Government and Society," and "Cultural Life," as you can manage.

    NOTE: Because, in this course, we read materials written in English, it is sometimes easy to forget that England (and other parts of the United Kingdom) are not simply "alternative versions" of the United States of America or Canada. The works we read are written in various old forms of the English language itself. They reflect very different physical, economic, and intellectual conditions from our own. Every bit of knowledge you can add about the nature and history of the British Isles and its peoples will pay dividends in helping you better to understand the literature we read.

NOTE: Any readings not found in the texts above will be distributed by photocopies handed out in class.


  1. Week 1 -- 14 January
    Discussion of four poems and techniques of reading poetry

  2. Week 2 -- 21 January
    • Geoffrey Nunberg, "The Persistence of English," Norton, pp. xlvii-lxi
    • "The Middle Ages to ca. 1485," Norton, pp. 1-20
    • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Marie Boroff, pp. 156-210

    • Lennard, "Introduction," "Metre"

  3. Week 3 -- 28 January
    • Chaucer, introduction, pp. 210-215
    • Chaucer, "General Prologue," The Canterbury Tales, pp. 215-235
    • Chaucer, "The Miller's Prologue and Tale," pp. 235-252

    • Lennard, "Form"
    Paper One (choose one of the following topics; 250-500 words, 1-2 pages maximum):
    • We read: "Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse." What does Chaucer tell us about her, and how does he do so? In what ways might he want his reader to understand this character, and to what end?
    • Chaucer's speaker characterizes not only the other participants in the pilgrimage but also himself. Describe the speaker. How does Chaucer give his reader tools with which to grasp the speaker's nature? What are they, specifically? What might the function of such a portrayal of the speaker be?
    • In "The Miller's Tale," Nicholas is "hende" in many ways. Briefly discuss several of them, showing how they serve to illuminate not only his character but also the characters of others with whom he has to deal in this tale, or the character who tells it.

  4. Week 4 -- 4 February
    • Chaucer, "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale," pp. 253-281
    • Chaucer, "The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale," pp. 281-296
    • Chaucer, "The Nun's Priest's Tale," pp. 296-310

    • Lennard, "Layout"

  5. Week 5 -- 11 February
    • two mystery plays, pp. 379-419
    • Everyman, pp. 445-467
    • a few Middle English lyrics, pp. 349-355
    • a few ballads (to be handed out before class)

    • Lennard, "Punctuation"
    Added Paper (a one-page paper, 250 words):
    • What are some of the major differences (or, if you prefer, the major difference) between the ways in which the anonymous authors of The Second Shepherds' Play and Everyman characterize the shepherds of the former and Everyman in the latter? How do these differences (or, if you prefer, this difference) between the characters indicate the different functions (or, if you prefer, the same functions; or, if you prefer, the same, or different function [that is, singular]) of the plays in which they appear? Keep it short and get to the point in a hurry: this is a paper to get in and out of right off the bat.

  6. Week 6 -- 18 February
    • "The Sixteenth Century," Norton, pp. 469-496
    • Wyatt, pp. 525-537
    • Surrey, pp. 569-577
    • Gascoigne, pp. 601-605

    • Lennard, "Lineation"
    Paper Two (choose one of the following topics; 250-500 words, 1-2 pages maximum):
    • Examine either "The long love that in my thought doth harbor," "Whoso list to hunt," or "They flee from me" from the perspective of Lennard's discussion of "lineation." He considers such matters as "caesura"; "end-stopped lines"; and "enjambment." How does thinking about such issues help you to see what Wyatt is doing in the poem you discuss? Or, if it does not help, why doesn't it?

    • MEMORIZE the poem you write about. (They're all short.)

  7. Week 7 -- 25 February
    • Spenser, pp. 614-698 (includes The Faerie Queene, Book I, cantos 1-6)

    • Lennard, "Rhyme"
    Added Paper (a one-page paper, 250 words):
    • You are reading Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene and, right off the bat -- in fact, it's in Canto 1, stanza 20, very soon after you enter the poem -- something pretty disgusting happens. What? -- and what does this disgusting thing "mean"? I am most concerned with how you find out what the disgusting thing "means." Tell me not only what you find out about its meaning(s) but also how you did so, step by step. Cite the resources you used. Once again, this is a short paper: get in, get out, just do it.

  8. Week 8 -- 3 March
    • Spenser, pp. 698-772 (The Faerie Queene, Book I, cantos 7-12)
    • Spenser, pp. 863-878 (selections from the Amoretti and the Epithalamion)
    • Ralegh, pp. 878-884
    • Sidney, pp. 916-933
    • Greville, pp. 955-956
    • Southwell, pp. 956-957
    • Daniel, pp. 964-965
    • Drayton, pp. 966-968

    • Lennard, "Diction"
    Added Paper (a one-page paper, 250 words):
    • What is Spenser's point in having Duessa's messenger try to disrupt the occasion even as Book I draws to its happy conclusion in Canto XII?

  9. Week 9 -- 10 March

  10. Week 10 -- 17 March
    • Shakespeare, pp. 1026-1043
    • Marlowe, "Hero and Leander," pp. 970-989
    • Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, pp. 990-1025

    • Lennard, "Syntax"
    • A Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis) production of Othello is running at the Annenberg Center on March 18th, 7:30 PM, for cheap prices. It is NOT REQUIRED -- but it is highly recommended.

  11. Week 11 -- 24 March
    • Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, pp. 1043-1105

    • Lennard, "History"
    Paper Three (250-500 words, 1-2 pages maximum):
    • Discuss the function of I.i.1-15 (Orsino's lines opening the play).
    • OR -- Discuss the ways in which gender confusions/disguise function in this play, especially with respect to the various pursuits of Viola/Cesario (and Sebastian?).

  12. Week 12 -- 31 March
    • "The Early Seventeenth Century 1603-1660," Norton, pp. 1209-1230
    • Donne, pp. 1233-1281
    • Jonson, pp. 1393-1418
    • Jonson, Volpone, pp. 1303-1393

    • Lennard, "Biography"

  13. Week 13 -- 7 April
    • Herbert, pp. 1595-1615
    • Marvell, pp. 1684-1725

    • Lennard, "Gender"
    Paper Four (choose one of the following topics; 1500 words, about 5 pages maximum):
    • Among the things Herbert seems to be doing, in both "Affliction (1)" and "Love (3)," is playing with issues of gender in a variety ways and for a variety of reasons. Discuss ONE of these poems, using Herbert's playfulness with gender issues as your key to analyzing what Herbert wants his readers to take from his poem.
    • Analyze the effect on the poem's meaning(s) of the puns in Herbert's "The Collar."
    • Compare and contrast the values his speaker finds in gardens to the values of the world to which gardens present an alternative in Marvell's "The Garden." You might want to think about the four -- perhaps even the five -- poems that immediately precede "The Garden" in your text when you answer this question, but you should pay attention first and foremost to "The Garden," which is complicated enough.

  14. Week 14 -- 14 April
    • Milton, pp. 1771-1774
    • Milton, "Lycidas," pp. 1790-1796
    • Milton, Paradise Lost, books 1 and 2
    Added Paper (a one-page paper, 250 words):
    • In "Lycidas," why does the speaker come to the poem, to the lament for the dead Lycidas, "with forc'd fingers rude"? and why does he choose this peculiar form (pastoral elegy) for his elegy? Have these details anything to do with the problem the young Milton has acting as a poet, writing poetry? If so, what? If not, suggest some other reasons for the presence of these details.

  15. Week 15 -- 21 April
    • Milton, Paradise Lost, books 3 and 4

    FINAL EXAM -- 28 April (5 May could be an alternative date if there is interest in a longer reading period)


    Your final grade will be determined according to the following proportions:

      1. 5% -- First paper
      2. 10% -- Second paper
      3. 10% --Third paper
      4. 25% -- Fourth paper
      5. 25% -- Final exam
      6. 25% -- Class participation