Monday, August 31, 2015

For Wednesday: Chaucer, "The Knight's Tale" Parts I and II, pp.26-53

Answer any TWO of the following questions...

Q1: Why do you think the Knight tells a story of “modern” knights and chivalry in ancient Greece?  Why might someone use the past to tell of the present?  How does one setting help reinforce the other?  

Q2: At the end of Book One, Chaucer asks his audience: “here's a question I would offer,/Arcite or Palamon, which had most to suffer?" Which of the two do you feel suffers more for love of Emily?  In some ways, this is a very serious philosophical question, since each lover has his own unique 'hell' away from the beloved.  Yet how might this also be satirical/ironic in intent?  

Q3: Examine Thesus’s response to the lovers at the end of Part II: is this a mockery of the knights' love or a defense of it?  How might this be a commentary on the love story itself? 

Q4: Discuss the manner of the Knight's narration/storytelling.  How does he tell the story and what mannerisms does he seem to have?  Where do we see his own personality/perspective coloring the narrative?  You might consider passages such as in Part I, page 30: "But it were all too long to speak of these..." 

Friday, August 28, 2015

For Monday: Chaucer, "The General Prologue" (from The Canterbury Tales)

Answer TWO of the following...

Q1: How does the narrator characterize himself and the presumption of writing a poem about pilgrims on a journey to Canterbury? How might this tie into the new beliefs of the 14th century (as discussed during Week 1) and his insistence on writing the tales in English?

Q2: Where in the Prologue do we see social criticism and/or outright satire of individual pilgrims? How might this connect to the belief of the ‘common’ English man/woman, particularly regarding topics such as the nobility, the Church, fashion, and manners?

Q3: Which pilgrim’s description did you find most appealing or interesting? How does Chaucer’s language create this character and help us ‘see’ him or her? What do you feel he wanted us to connect with or admire/dislike about the character?

Q4: Compare the style of narration of “The General Prologue” to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Though both are written in the late 14th century, they are part of very different traditions of writing: Sir Gawain has more in common with the older, Anglo Saxon alliterative tradition, while Chaucer follows the more continental, ‘humanist’ approach. Are there passages that seem much more modern in Chaucer’s Prologue, or do they share many of the same stylistic traits and humor? 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

For Friday: Part IV of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Remember that there are NO blog questions for Friday's class. Instead, we'll do an in-class writing response based on a big idea in Part IV of the poem. However, here is an idea to consider from an essay by Gawain scholar Sherron E. Knopp:

"The poet takes seriously the Christian mandate to strive for perfection. But ideals are perfect, simple, and abstract, while the reality to which they must be applied is complex and unpredictable. In his refusal to take that reality seriously--and it includes his own human fallibility--Gawain sets himself on a collision course with humiliation and flirts with contemptus mundi [the contempt of the world] before he is able or willing to accept any weakness in himself. Because failure is natural and unavoidable, the poet finds hid dogged zealousness more than a little comical. And it is this attitude that makes the poem..."profoundly Christian.""  

Consider the nature of Gawain's "fall" at the end of the poem and how Bertilak, Arthur, and Gawain respond to it. Why do they all see it so differently? Is the ending of the poem "profoundly Christian" in its perspective, or is it more of a "pagan" world view that emerges from the Christian/chivalric fabric?  We'll think more about this on Friday...

Monday, August 24, 2015

For Wednesday: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Parts II and III

“An allegory is a narrative fiction in which the agents and actions, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived to make coherent sense on the “literal” or primary, level of signification, and at the same time to signify a second, correlated order of agents, concepts, and events.  We can distinguish two main types: (1) historical and political allegory…and (2) the allegory of ideas, in which the literal characters represent abstract concepts and the plot exemplifies a doctrine or thesis…The central device in the second type, the sustained allegory of ideas, is the personification of abstract entities such as virtues, vices, states of mind, modes of life, and types of character” (from M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms). 

After reading Parts II and III, examine a section of the text (a short passage, no more than a page or two) that you feel can be read allegorically.  Consider how the poet writes a poetic narrative that functions on two levels, and what clues suggest his multiple meanings.  What ideas or concepts are personified, and what “doctrine or thesis” might your reading lead to?  Write a developed response of at least a developed paragraph, though you can go to town if you wish

NOTE: If you’re stumped, consider nature/weather imagery, the various hunt episodes, and the “challenge” that Gawain faces in the Lord’ s castle.  

Remember, you can post here OR bring it to class with you.  But it's due no later than class time on Wednesday.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

For Monday: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Part I (pp.3-17)

The basic story: The poet links Arthur’s kingdom to ancient Troy, suggesting that Arthur is descended from ancient (and noble) stock. Then the action switches to Christmas games at Camelot, where lo and behold, a Green Man storms the castle riding a tremendous green horse. He challenges the knights to a contest: he will allow any  man one chance to chop off his head, and if he isn’t killed by the blow, the Green Knight gets to give a blow in return. No one takes him up on this offer, and Arthur, humiliated, agrees to do it himself. But Gawain, one of the younger knights, agrees to take his place and slices off the Knight’s head. However, the Knight merely picks it up and says, “see you in a year!”

Answer TWO of the following questions for Monday. To get full credit for this assignment, be sure to do the following: (a) answer each question in a few sentences, (b) be specific—don’t just give a generic answer, and (c) if possible, quote part of the book to support your ideas.

Q1: How is the court of Camelot described/characterized by the poet? What kind of place is it? Is it an idealized place of wonder and beauty, or is it a realistic kingdom of debauchery and disorder?

Q2: Discuss some detail of the poem’s description of the Green Knight. What stands out the most about him? Why does the poet spend so much time—almost two entire pages—just describing him? What might he want us to see/understand about his appearance in the hall?

Q3: According to the poem, why does the Green Knight come to challenge Arthur and his court? By barging in like this (and on a horse, no less), he’s breaking the laws of chivalry and being quite disrespectful. What would make him act so flagrantly toward the greatest king in the land?

Q4: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight employs a poetic structure known as the “bob and wheel,” which ends each of the stanzas. As the translator explains, “[it is] a short phrase of two words containing one stress, the bob, followed by a four-line rhyming quatrain made up of three-stressed lines” (xxiv).  The translator doesn’t always preserve this perfectly, but you can see it here from page 3:

to his great content (the bob)
War, reprisal, exploit
have happened here at times.
Joy and disaster
have often taken turns (the four-line wheel). 

Discuss how at least one of these bob and wheels function in the poem. Why are they here? Do they break up the story? Change the meaning? Offer a different perspective? How does it read/sound compared to the lines that precede it?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Welcome to the Course!

Welcome to the official blog of the Fall 2015 semester's British Literature to 1800 course. As I wrote in the syllabus,

"I like to think of this class as a tour of a great museum: there’s too much to see in one day (or one semester), so we could either rush through and click off each painting (“yes, there’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and here’s Donne’s Holy Sonnets; now onto a page of Pepys’ diary”), OR we could pick a painting in each room and say, “okay, let’s really sit down and examine this painting.”  I’ve chosen six “paintings” for us to read this semester, hoping that our discussions will teach us about the people who wrote them, the time that shaped them, and the legacy of literary criticism that makes these texts relevant in the 21st century."  

So instead of lugging around a fat anthology and reading one work a day before moving on, we're going to linger a bit, questioning each work and really getting to know it before leaving the room. The books I've chosen for this class are a mix of the "standards" and some lesser-known works that are just as deserving of attention.  We'll read a lot of poetry, two plays, and two novels throughout the semester, charting how each form changes over time and grows with the English language itself.  Be sure to buy all six works as soon as possible, particularly since the bookstore will send unpurchased texts back within a few weeks.  The book list follows along with specific editions I require:

Anonymous      Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  (Penguin Classics or other)
Chaucer             The Canterbury Tales (Penguin Classics or other)
Shakespeare     Antony and Cleopatra (Norton Critical required)
Defoe                  A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics or other)
Sheridan            The School for Scandal (Dover or other)
Austen                Pride and Prejudice (Norton Critical required)  

I look forward to meeting with you this semester and discussing what makes these works specifically literary, British, and still worth knowing after hundreds and hundreds of years. Please feel free to visit me in my office (HM 348) or e-mail me at with any questions.  See you soon!

[Note: the posts below this one are from the Fall 2014 semester, and are not work for this semester--so don't worry.  However, feel free to browse them if you're curious].