Course Introduction

Venerable Bede from Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)Welcome to English 151w, Great Works of English Literature. For the basic overview of the course as well as information about course texts, expectations, and assignments, please go to the About page. You will find the course schedule (subject to changes), along with homework assignments, under Syllabus.

This course introduces students to a representative selection of the greatest works of poetry, prose and drama written by some of the most important figures in British literary history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. We will proceed chronologically and our focus in each period will be organized around a consideration of the use and expansion of formal and thematic tradition: the modes in which authors inherit and transform the possibilities for creative expression available to writers in the English language. Students will cultivate a careful reader’s appreciation of one of the richest European traditions by coming to understand the ways in which the matter and the manner of literary works in a cultural and linguistic continuum depend upon and resonate with each other.

We will be asking many questions including: How do literary texts work? How do they give pleasure or inspire thought? How can they be said to be products of the cultural contexts in which they are produced and to which they respond? What formal and thematic aspects are shared across periods and between texts? What forms and ideas become important in the English tradition? What makes a work great or canonical? How can we respond to or critique problematic positions in these works? And what is this labor good for?

We begin with the origins of the English literary tradition in the Old English period of the Middle Ages. Much of what we know of the history and writing of this time comes down to us through the monastic scholar known as the Venerable Bede. Bede produced many theological texts as well as books on science and rhetoric, but his most popular and enduring work is the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (c. 731). This History tells about the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the English isle and the ups and downs of the kingdoms that comprised Anglo-Saxon England. Bede’s main theme, however, is the spread of Christianity and the growth of the English Church. The latter were the great events of Bede’s time, and he regarded them as the unfolding of God’s providence.

What we could call Bede’s ideological investment in a narrative of Christian conversion, of course, poses an interesting problem for readers of his work. To what extent were Bede’s depictions of English history colored by his interest in portraying the positive triumphs of the Christian religion? The excerpts below are good examples that allow us to begin thinking about the ideological forces at work in the writing of this (and any) literary period. In reading Beowulf, as you will do for the first assignment, you will encounter evidence of several seemingly conflicting world-views and traditions, including the classical tradition of Epic poetry (for example, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, and Virgil’s Aeneid), the Germanic Heroic culture (belonging to the warrior society depicted in the poem), and the Ecclesiastical or Christian tradition which was on the rise in Anglo-Saxon England at the time of writing.

mead-hallBede’s Anecdote of the Mead-Hall
from the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (c. 731)

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus. Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon
from the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (c. 731), IV.23-4

“…. In Hild’s monastery was a certain brother specially marked by the grace of God, who used to make pious and religious verses, so that whatever he learned from the holy Scriptures through interpreters, he soon afterwards turned into poetry of great sweetness and humility, in English, which was his native language. By his verses the minds of many were often inspired to despise the world and to long for the heavenly life. After him other Englishmen tried to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men or through a man,7 but received the gift of song freely by divine grace. For this reason he never could compose any trivial or foolish poem, but only those which were concerned with devotion and were fitting for his pious tongue to utter. 

He had lived in the secular life until he was well advanced in years, and had never learned any verses; therefore sometimes at feasts, when it was agreed for the sake of entertainment that all present should take a turn singing, when he saw the harp coming towards him, he would rise up from the table in the middle of the feast, go out, and return home. On one occasion when he did this, he left the house of feasting and went to the stable, where it was his turn to take care of the animals that night. In due time he stretched out to rest; a person appeared to him in his sleep, saluted him by name, and said, “Caedmon, sing me something.” Cædmon answered, “I cannot sing; that is why I left the feast and came here, because I could not sing.” The man who was talking to him replied, “Nevertheless, you must sing to me.”“What shall I sing?” he asked. “Sing about the beginning of created things,” he replied. At that, Cædmon immediately began to sing verses which he had never heard before in praise of God, whose general sense is this: “We ought now to praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory and how He, since He is the eternal God, was the author of all marvels and first, as almighty Guardian of the human race, created heaven as a roof for the sons of men, and then the earth.”9 This is the sense but not the actual order of the words he sang in his sleep, for poetry, no matter how well composed, cannot be literally translated from one language into another without losing much of its beauty and dignity. Awaking from his sleep, Cædmon remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added more verses in the same manner, praising God in a worthy style. 

In the morning he went to the steward, his master, and told him of the gift he had received; the steward led him to the abbess, who ordered him, in the presence of many learned men, to recount his dream and repeat his poem, so that they might all decide what it was and where it had come from. It was clear to all of them he had received a gift of heavenly grace from our Lord. Then they explained to him a passage of sacred history or doctrine, and ordered him, if he could, to turn it into verse. he undertook this task and went away; when he returned the next morning he repeated it to them, composed in excellent verse. At this the abbess, recognizing the grace of God in this man, instructed him to renounce the secular habit and take up the monastic life; when this was done she joined him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery and ordered that he should be taught the whole course of sacred history. He learned all that he could by listening, and turned it over in his mind like a clean beast chewing the cud, turned it into the most harmonious verse, and recited it so sweetly that his teachers became in turn his audience. He sang of the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and all the history of Genesis: and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, and their entry into the Promised Land, and many other stories from the holy Scriptures; of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of our Lord, and of His ascension into heaven, of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the apostles, also of the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the joys of the kingdom of heaven, and many more songs about the Divine mercies and judgments, by which he tried to turn all men away from the love of vice and to inspire in them the love and practice of good works. He was a very devout man, humbly submissive to the discipline of the monastic rule, but full of zeal against those who behaved otherwise; for this reason his life had a lovely ending.” 

Cædmon’s Hymn in Old English
West Saxon version

Now (we) should praise Heaven-kingdom’s guardian 
Nu sculon herian heofonrices weard,
the Maker’s might and his mind-thoughts, 
Metodes meahta ond his modgethanc,
the work of the glory-father, as he of wonders of each 
weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,
eternal Lord a beginning established. 
ece Drihten, or astealde.
He first shaped for men’s sons 
He ærest scop ielda bearnum
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator; 
heofon to hrofe, halig Scieppend;
then middle-earth mankind’s guardian, 
tha middangeard manncynnes weard,
eternal Lord afterwards prepared, 
ece Drihten, æfter teode,
for men the earth, the Lord almighty. 
firum foldan Frea ælmihtig. 


HOMEWORK: Beowulf (Norton 3-18, 26-32, 36-68).

Optional: Read the “Introduction” in the pdf of Seamus Heaney’s translation, linked below.

*Note: The bookstore ran out and won’t have copies of the Norton until this Thursday, the 30th. If you are desperate to get started with your reading of Beowulf you can start with this pdf: Beowulf trans. Heaney. Read up to line 1250. You are also encouraged to read the introduction. Be aware that there is other reading in the Norton that is not in this pdf, so you need to get the anthology and read those introductory pages before our next class meeting. Pdfs will not be available for course readings in the future.

Come to class ready to contribute to a discussion focusing on the text of Beowulf. Take notes as you read! Underline and mark up passages. Consider rhetorical and literary devices used in the poem. And simply enjoy this interesting and exciting poem.

Also be sure to read through the blog post on Beowulf and to attempt to answer, in your notes, some of the response questions.

Lastly, if you are unfamiliar or want a refresher on the terminology of literary discussion, please look through this pdf, as some of these terms may be relevant to in-class writing and quizzes: “Denotation and Connotation,” “Imagery,” “Figurative Language 1: Simile, Metaphor, Personification, Apostrophe, Metonymy,” “Figurative Language 2: Symbol, Allegory,” “Figurative Language 3: Paradox, Overstatement, Understatement, Irony,” “Allusion,” and “Tone”


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