Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Chaucer, "The Knight's Tale," Parts III and IV

Bathetic Knights to Battle! 
For Friday's class, there are no questions, but we'll have an in-class response when you arrive in class. The subject of the writing will be identifying bathos in poetry, and in the poetry of the Knight in particular. Bathos is "Greek for depth, and it has been an indispensable term to critics since Alexander Pope’s essay On Bathos: Of the Art of Sinking in Poetry…the word ever since has been used for an unintentional descent in literature when, straining to be pathetic or passionate or elevated, the writer overshoots his mark and drops into the trivial or the ridiculous. Among his examples Pope records, “the modest request of two absent lowers” in a contemporary poem:

Ye Gods! annihilate but Space and Time,
And make two lovers happy." (Abrahms, Glossary of Literary Terms)

As you read Parts III and IV, look for passages where something that should have pathos (or be pathetic, meaning evoking deep emotion) misses the mark and becomes bathetic, or full of bathos. It's when a poet misfires and makes us laugh instead of cry, though he/she wants us to cry. When does the Knight do this, or, when does the Knight consciously make his characters bathetic (to make a point to his son)?

Monday, August 29, 2016

For Wednesday: “The Knight’s Tale” Parts I and II

For Wednesday: “The Knight’s Tale” Parts I and II

Answer TWO of the following:

Q1: Though the Knight is telling this story to the entire group, in some ways he has a very specific audience in mind: his son, the Squire. Why might we suspect that this story is really for him? How might this also help explain why tells a story of “long, long ago” instead of a modern tale of knights and battles? Consider, too, the difference between the Knight and the Squire in the General Prologue.

Q2: At the end of Part One, the Knight poses the question: “Now all you lovers, let me pose the question:/Who’s worse off, Arcita or Palamon?” Are we supposed to side with one of the lovers? Does one suffer a worse “hell” than the other? Or does this question have satiric undertones? (again, you might consider the audience)

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

Q4: What kind of storyteller is the Knight? Remember that the narrator claims that “To tell a tale told by another man/You must repeat it as nearly as you can.” How does his storytelling differ from the narrator’s? What does he do well—or ill? Are we supposed to marvel at his rhetoric or find it somewhat lacking? In other words, does he strike us as a clumsy or a crafty poet?

Friday, August 26, 2016

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 on Friday) 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 that of Beowulf. Though these works are written hundreds of years apart, and reflect two very different Englands, there are some surprising similarities. What seems like the most radical departure in Chaucer's work, and what tells you that Chaucer might have known and studied works like Beowulf in his career? 

Monday, August 22, 2016

For Wednesday: Finish Beowulf (or get as close as possible)

We'll continue discussing Beowulf for the next two days, though try to finish it as soon as possible since that will help our discussion. On Wednesday, I'll give you an in-class writing response covering a specific event/idea in the last third of the poem. However, as you continue to read, here are some ideas to consider...

* What role does the dragon play in the poem? He’s clearly not humanized in the way Grendel or his mother are (he’s a literal monster), but he still exhibits some very human characteristics. What might these be?

* Consider, too, how this dragon relates to another dragon we might known from Tolkein: Smaug. If you know The Hobbit, how are the two related? How might Tolkein have been inspired from this one?

* Why, according to the poem, does Beowulf fail in his final fight? Why does fate, or God, abandon him?

* How does the final third of the poem comment on the bonds of family, clan, and kingdom? What ‘doom’ might it prophesize for future generations?

* What is the importance of Wiglaf and his speech towards the end of the poem? How might he echo other characters in the poem? Does he express the true beliefs of the poet?

* Does the poet seem to look back longingly on Anglo Saxon ideals, or as a Christian, does he see their limitations? How might this explain why he chose an old pagan warrior as the subject for a Christian poem? 

Friday, August 19, 2016

For Monday: Beowulf, pp.58-135 (after the fight with Grendel's mother)

Answer TWO of the following in a short paragraph each…

1. What general philosophy of life does the poet seem to embody?  Where in the text can you read or sense this?  Is it explicit (does the poet come out and say this), or is it more implicit, built into the story itself? 

2. On page 87, when everyone is celebrating the death of Grendel and the libration of Hrothgar’s hall, the poet writes: “how could they know fate,/the grim shape of things to come,/the threat looming over many thanes/as night approas moched and King Hrothgar prepared/to retire to his quarters?”  Based on the logic of the poem (and the values of the poet’s day), why does wyrd/fate continue to ‘punish’ the hall if God wanted Beowulf to destroy Grendel?  Why are they afflicted by Grendel’s mother as well? 

3. The only real description we get of Grendel and his mother occurs on page 95, when Hrothgar says “One of these things...looks like a woman; the other, warped/in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale/bigger than any man, an unnatural birth.”  Though the poet often claims that they are the spawn of Cain, evil incarnate, some critics suggest that the poet invests them with a subversive humanity.  Where might we see this in the poem?  How might the poet make us question a strict good/evil reading of the poem? 

4. Though Beowulf is quite a ‘manly’ poem, three women appear briefly in its pages: Wealhtheow (Hrothgar’s wife), Hygd (wife of Beowulf’s chief, Hygelac), and Modthryth (the ‘evil’ wife of Offa).  Assuming that Beowulf is somewhat culturally accurate, what view of women does the poem offer us?  What was their role in society?  Related to this, what role do they play in the poem?  Given their almost ‘walk-on’ roles, why include them at all? 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

For Friday: Beowulf, (pages 3-57, Heaney translation; for other translations, read to the conclusion of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel)

Answer TWO of the following questions in a short paragraph response (a few sentences).  These questions are not meant as busy work; rather, they are to be used as a ‘guide’ to help you through the maze of difficult readings or to give you something specific to respond to or look for.  I don’t want you to skim readings or just read for the plot.  A work of literature is made up of the small moments, powerful phrases, or sudden revelations that occur in the most unlikely places.  Read slowly and carefully, even if you don’t get to the exact end of the reading assignment.  Better to read well than finish poorly.

1.         This poem was written sometime between 700 to 1000 A.D, when most of England had accepted Christianity (though odd areas, including Scotland, held out).  However, the events of the poem take place in the ‘pagan’ world of Scandinavia before Christianity had been introduced.  How does the poem graft the Christian tradition onto the world of pagan monsters and folklore?  Can the two worlds co-exist within the poem, or are there moments of confusion or contradiction? How did it read for you, as a 21st century reader in a largely Christian culture?

2.         In a famous passage of the poem (from line 499), Unferth, another warrior at Hrothgar’s court, attacks Beowulf’s claims of heroism.  Why is this passage important to the poem?  How is what he says—and how Beowulf responds to it—dramatically compelling?  You might also consider what this episode says about the culture of the Anglo Saxons and its heroes. 

3.         Examine a short passage that relates to the Exeter Riddles we discussed in class. Though Beowulf is not a riddle, but an extended poem, how does the poet use kennings or metaphors to create a similar experience? In other words, how is he challenging us to see the mundane Anglo Saxon world—a world of weapons, boats, men, women, and weather—in a new and poetic light? Why is this satisfying even for a modern-day reader?

4.         One of the most celebrated words in the poem is “wyrd” which  is often translated as “fate” or “destiny,” as when Beowulf says “Fate goes ever as fate must” (31).  How might we understand what the Anglo-Saxons meant by fate in this instance (and others in the poem)?  Is fate “God” and His decisions?  Is fate related to a Norse/Greek conception of destiny?  Or is it simply luck or random chance?  Discuss a passage that might help us read this elusive word. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Welcome to the Course!

Welcome to the course blog for English 2643, British Literature to 1800 at East Central University. As the syllabus explains, 

"This course is a highly subjective seminar that tries to trace the “family history” of English literature from around the 10th century to the late 18th. 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 Pride and Prejudice”), 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. The challenge for the student is to read slowly and attentively, and not be discouraged by works that frustrate our modern notions of what literature is or should be. So whether you are an ardent Anglophile or are racked with metrophobia (fear of poetry), you will find something in this class that moves you…confuses you…inspires you…and intimidates you. Read with an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask questions."

This is probably my favorite course to teach at ECU, and I've taught it numerous times since arriving here in 2006. I've never taught it the same way twice, since this class, more than any other, invites experimentation. No other class contains so many great authors, great books, and great ideas--almost 1,000 years worth! This year, I've designed several new themes and approaches which I hope you'll find interesting, and in the process, introduce you to some old favorites as well as a few books you've probably never heard of. Be sure to buy all the book as soon as possible, since we'll start reading immediately, and the bookstore will send unsold books back in a few weeks. The reading list is below:

Anonymous        Beowulf (Heaney translation or other)
Chaucer             The Canterbury Tales (Oxford Classics or other)
Shakespeare      Othello (Norton Critical required)
Behn                 Oronooko (Norton Critical required)
Pope                  The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems (Signet or other)
Austen               Lady Susan (Dover or other) 

Check this site often for discussion questions, announcements, and paper assignments. I look forward to learning and reading alongside you this semester!