"The best thing for being sad . . . is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then— to learn. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you."
—Merlyn in T.H. White, The Once and Future King
A people without history Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern Of timeless moments.
—TS. Eliot, Little Gidding 5.233-35
As you will see from the cover page of our syllabus, I have given English 281, British Writers I, a subtitle, “Pilgrim, Warrior, Lover Knight,” and have created a jingle that will introduce themes and roles that will show up in the varied genres we will read:
Fool, and Knight.
Beginning with the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which may date back to the first half of the eighth century but has survived in a single late tenth-century manuscript, we will explore the way the Geat warrior Beowulf, nephew to Hygelac, reflects his culture and contrasts with the heroes of later epics: the Red Cross Knight in Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth-century epic, The Faerie Queene, and Adam and Eve in John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic, Paradise Lost. Lastly, Alexander Pope will poke fun at the epic tradition while using its tropes in his eighteenth-century mock- epic, The Rape of the Lock. We will also read the chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and excerpts from Malory’s Morte Darthur. Before leaving the medieval period, we will encounter pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and in Margery Kempe’s spiritual autobiography, which she dictated to two scribes because she herself was illiterate. Drama will take us from Yorkshire in The Second Shepherds’ Play to Illyria on the Adriatic coast in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, just as tales of imaginary travel in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia will prepare us for later works that will open up issues of gender, race, and class—including selections, in volume C of The Norton Anthology, from a section on liberty and slavery.
The early modern period, formerly known as the “Renaissance,” produced two centuries of outstanding lyrical poetry: early sonnets by Wyatt and Surrey and whole sonnet sequences—we’ll sample Sidney’s, Spenser’s, Shakespeare’s, and Lady Mary Wroth’s. Metaphysical poetry inaugurated by John Donne will lead to other seventeenth-century poets who work in this tradition: George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, Katherine Philips, and Andrew Marvell. Ben Jonson will have his own followers, such as Robert Herrick, a poet considered a member of the “Tribe of Ben.” The Restoration and eighteenth century will lead us to poets such as John Dryden and Anne Finch, to prose writers such as Lady Wortley Montagu, Olaudah Equiano, and Aphra Behn, and to Gulliver ’s Travels by the great satirist Jonathan Swift.
To suggest my hopes for this course, I’d like to borrow a simile from The Venerable Bede. In his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731 A.D.), he reports that a member of King Edwin's council, arguing the case for Christianity, urged that the new religion offered some answers to the unknown. The new religion might be as mysterious as a sparrow that escapes rain and snow by flying indoors and then disappears. Would it not be worthwhile to follow this sparrow imaginatively? I'd like to think that we, too, can benefit from an effort to probe imaginatively into early British literary history. Cut off as we are, both geographically and temporally, from the England of Anglo-Saxon times through the eighteenth century, we need the help of chronological order and historical setting to answer questions about the development of English literature and to appreciate the texts we will read. But as we study more than thirty writers whose works represent five major periods and a variety of themes, genres, styles, and conventions, we will also need to analyze closely the literature on the syllabus, exploring the reciprocity of what T.S. Eliot calls "tradition and the individual talent."
Eliot notes an important means for both interpreting and evaluating art when he reminds us, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Our reading in ENG 281 will also allow us to test out C.S. Lewis’s assertion, “Change is never complete, and change never ceases. Nothing is ever quite finished with; it may always begin over again. . .. And nothing is quite new; it was always somehow anticipated or prepared for.” May the paradox in the epigraph I chose for our course make good sense to you by the end of the semester.
Somewhere in all my syllabi, I highlight the importance of learning from one another. College life is all about sharing ideas and gaining new perspectives. It’s what I love about my life as a teacher: every semester feels new and exciting because of the insights I gain from my students as they read texts in new ways and ask challenging questions that make me rethink my response to works that I think I know well.
I hope that you will find this ongoing dialogue as inspiring as I do. Even if you begin the semester by fearing that you’ve entered an alien world, I can’t help trusting in the power of beautifully resonant language and timeless ideas to open up early texts in startling and exciting ways.
English 281 should allow you to gain confidence as both a reader and a writer who feels at home in a past made accessible and tangible because, as T.S. Eliot would say, literature lives in an eternal present. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he asserts, “the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent that the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” He adds, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know” (Selected Essays, Harcourt, 1964, p. 6).
Even if the texts we read are totally unfamiliar to you now, I hope that you will come to understand why I like to suggest that Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defense of Poesy, offers an indirect answer to the question, “What can I do with an English major?” when he points out that literature can speak to both the old and the young and that it does not confine us to an ivory tower; on the contrary, because it is “moving,” it compels us to act on our beliefs—to make a difference, as we would say now, in the real world: “But to be moved to do that which we know, or to be moved with desire to know, hoc opus, hic labor esf’ [Latin: “this is the task, this is the work to be done”], Sidney declares (Norton Anthology, vol. B, p. 562). As a nimble thinker able to see connections between the past and the present, you can use your own talent when you venture out into our broken world and offer new answers and creative solutions to age-old problems.
I'd like to think that your reading in ENG 281 will remain with you long after you graduate from DePauw— at the very least when something in your future life triggers a memory from this course. A few years ago, an alumna from 1997 phoned me in my office at 11 p.m. from a bar in Washington, D.C: she was trying to remember the title of a love poem that includes the metaphor of a circle formed by compasses. When I told Melanie, “you’re thinking of John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” she exclaimed, “That’s it!” I, in turn, connected a 10"-century poem with a 21*-century NYT article (17 July 2019) about the French fire-fighters who, on arriving at the scene of the fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, ventured into the flames, realizing that they might not come out alive. The fire-fighters included 27-year-old Corporal Myriam Chudzinski, who “had wanted to be a firefighter since she was a little girl. Now she was staring speechless at a kind of blaze she had never encountered.” She went in anyway, taking the lead. Reading about her reminded me of the Anglo-Saxon warrior Byrhtnoth, who, just before a Viking invasion on Aug. 11, 991, “let his beloved hawk fly from his hands / away into the woods” (Il. 7-8 of a surviving fragment from the Anglo-Saxon poem Battle of Maldon— translated by Aaron K. Hostetter, Old English Poetry Project, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/battle-of-maldon). The poet’s audience would have understood, without his saying so, that the earl releases his falcon only because he knows that he will die in battle. I give these examples in the hope that you, too, will find ways to connect the present to texts from centuries ago.
I trust that, throughout this semester, you will find that literature and language will come alive for you—not only in the texts we will read, but also in your own writing, which I invite you to approach not as some people in the tech world do: “they’re of a mind that once they’ve entered something online, they’re ‘done’—and never want to see it again. So different from the very basic idea of rethinking, revising, editing, and multiple iterations!” Can you tell that June Rugh, the editor friend I’m quoting here, who works in that world, majored in English literature?
Sununu, Andrea, "ENG 281 British Writers I: Warrior, Lover, Pilgrim, Knight Sununu Fall 2023" (2023). Course Syllabi. 21, Scholarly and Creative Work from DePauw University.