The earliest English poetry

[English 390, offered Spring 2018]

In English, as in other languages, poetry was at first an oral form: it was passed down in recitation, not writing. The Anglo-Saxons (that is, the English-speaking inhabitants of early medieval Britain) learned to write when they converted to Christianity; soon thereafter, they used their new skill to record some of their vernacular poetry in writing. The poems that survive from this earliest period include tales of heroes and monsters, songs of loss and exile, saints’ lives, biblical narratives, visions, and riddles. Ever since the rediscovery of this poetry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has been prized for emotional depth, luminous detail, and intricate language. We read several of the best poems – among them, Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, and Judith – in modern English translations, for the original language (termed “Old English”) is now comprehensible only after a prior course of language study. (This course assumes no prior knowledge of medieval English.) We then follow the poetic tradition forward, past the Norman Conquest, to forms of the English language somewhat closer to our own. We read an Arthurian romance (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, again mostly in modern English translation), a re-telling of the biblical story of Jonah (Patience), and Piers Plowman, a brilliantly surrealistic, restless sequence of dream visions, motivated by a single question: how should I live? (The poem was the life work of its author.) We read Patience and Piers Plowman in the original language, termed “Middle English.” Learning to read Middle English takes work, but the reward is an unusually fine-grained and intimate experience of literature.


  • Explore the imaginative possibilities of literary fiction and poetic verse.
  • Gain an experience of literature written in a historical period and material context different from our own.
  • Study the historical development and innovative uses of a literary form.
  • Develop skills for understanding and appreciating a form of the English language different from the modern standard.
  • Refine skills of formal expository writing, self-expression, and literary argument.
  • Conduct research on a topic in literary studies.

We devote a portion of each class session to workshopping student writing, and to discussion of strategies for successful writing and research. These discussions will be supported by readings from The Craft of Research (available in electronic copy through the library website) and by a meeting with Niamh McGuigan, librarian for English literature. Each student will submit writing to be workshopped once during the semester, and everyone will serve as respondent once during the semester.

Workshop dates are assigned by your instructor. If you wish to change any of these dates, you must find a classmate willing to switch dates with you. Plan ahead.

Our readings consist of medieval English poetry and scholarly essays about medieval English poetry. Each student will present one scholarly essay to class and lead discussion of it. (Like the workshops, this is assigned in advance.) Most weeks, we will devote a portion of our class session to translation from Middle English.

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