Early British Literature

Grendel from "Beowulf"

One semester
Open to 10, 11, 12
Range of difficulty 1-3

1. Rationale

Early British Literature covers, in one semester, over 1000 years of material. As such, we typically move along quickly, reading from rich and varied texts starting with the Anglo-Saxon period and ending around 1800. This course provides students with an overview of British literature and with an opportunity to explore the works in their historical and social contexts. Students examine the attitudes, philosophies, and literary forms that emerge over this period. The objective is to provide students with the broad picture rather than the close-up; to give students a sense of the way in which English literature–and English perceptions of what literature is–have evolved.

2. Topics and Themes Emphasized

Genre development: evolution of forms in plays, poems, and novels.

Social/Historical/Cultural context: how do themes, characters, images reflect the questions and assumptions of an era?

Comparative studies: how do these works compare to our contemporary vision?

3. Methods and Sample Assignments

Students are asked to read carefully, question, and analyze selections for meaning, form, style, language, and tone. Some historical background will be presented in discussion or lecture format, and may be the subject of individual outside reading. Class discussion about the literature will be the primary method of instruction. Writing to interpret, explain, react to, or imitate the readings will be the primary method of assessment. Films/documentaries, speakers, student presentations, and individual reading and research projects may also be used.

Students may be asked to compare or contrast writers’ works, to trace the development of an idea, theme, or form. They may also be asked to relate a work to a historical period, a literary philosophy, an artistic movement (which can include the visual arts, architecture, dramatic arts, and music). Students will be expected to note relationships among the readings and eras studied and to be able to recognize the both the continuity and progression/transformation of the literature through the centuries.

4. Expectations for Students

Reading: assignments will be lengthy; much of the early literature is poetry. Some of the earlier pieces will be more difficult because of structural differences in the language or unfamiliar vocabulary. Some critical and historical readings will be assigned.

Writing: there will be frequent critical and analytical compositions, with at least one major paper/project for each literary work. Opportunities for creative writing and/or creative projects are provided for most units and they may take the form of imitating an author’s work, a style, or a literary form. Students may be given the opportunity to design their own writing assignments.

Listening/Speaking: class discussion, oral presentations, speakers, films, and lectures all provide opportunities for students to speak, listen, and collaborate. They are expected to participate on a daily basis.

5. Reading List and Other Materials

The Anglo Saxon Period
Beowulf
“The Battle of Brunanburgh”
“The Dream of the Rood”
“The Wanderer”

The Medieval Period
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Everyman
The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer
Le Morte D’Arthur, Malory

The Renaissance
Dr. Faustus, Marlowe
Twelfth Night, Shakespeare
The Henriad, Shakespeare
Elizabethan Sonnets

16th/17th Century
Paradise Lost (selections), Milton
She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith
Moll Flanders, Defoe
Cavalier Poetry
Metaphysical Poetry

The Augustan Age/The Enlightenment
The works of Pope
Gulliver’s Travels, Swift
Pride and Prejudice, Austen

6. Bibliography

The Elizabethan World Picture, Tillyard
From Classic to Romantic, Bate
See “Shakespeare I” bibiliography above

Sample Assignments

How does “The Dream of the Rood” use Anglo Saxon values/images/ideas in its representation of Christ’s crucifixion, and to what effect? Be sure to discuss the entire poem, and not just parts of it.

Create a character who might have accompanied Chaucer’s pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury. Describe him or her as Chaucer would have done in his Prologue; then have your pilgrim tell a tale in one of the forms that Chaucer used.

Respond to the following statement by substantiating or challenging it, using specific examples from The Canterbury Tales as proof: “It could be said that tricks, trysts, and irony create the major conflicts in The Canterbury Tales.”

Monsters: Real and Metaphorical. Trace the role that monsters play in the works you’ve read this semester. What types of monsters appear in these works? What function do they serve? How do they reflect the attitudes/values/belief systems of the time in which they were written?

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