Friday, May 27, 2011

"Classics Of British Literature" audiocourse # 2 by Prof. John Sutherland

Updated 5/27/2011

I have recently finished listening to a second audiocourse from Great Course.  If you are interested, here is the post to the first audiocourse which I would also recommend: The Art of Reading.

The introduction:
"This course could as properly be titled A History of British Literature, in that it is sequential and essentially "historical" - historical, that is, in two senses.  It follows the trajectory of literary achievement from earliest to latest times in a progressive line, and its basic presupposition is that literature cannot be (and should not be) examined outside the historical circumstances."
So while learning about Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, I am also learning about the England that he lived in.

Listening to Professor Sutherland's lectures is like sitting in his living room in front of a roaring fire and he is alternatively teaching and then getting up and reciting some of his favorite passages, complete with voice modulations and gestures (esp. when reading Shakespeare).  I listen to his lectures in the car and find myself playing them even on a 10 minute errand.  I am learning so much and will record the highlights in this post.

Beowulf (6th century)- read the 2002 translation from Seamus Heaney (2001). Origins in the 6th century, it was a work that was recited and finally penned by a monk.  Readers may find it familiar as it is echoed in the works by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Listen to the audio recording by Heaney.

The Canterbury Tales (1380's) by Geoffrey Chaucer.  A story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury from London by an eclectic group of pilgrims. As they travel, stories are told and this is what makes up the tales.  "In writing The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer established literature in the middle level of society; after him, literature would become an important element in the emergence and progress of what we know as England."  Buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Suggested reading:The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed by Jill Mann, Penguin Classics 2005.  The Canterbury Tales by Derek Pearsall (1985). Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales by Helen Cooper (1996).

The Faerie Queen (16th century) by Edmund Spenser.  Written in the time of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.  The subject in the work is England itself and virtues embodied in knights, who go around "on quests to set the world to rights."  The virtues are "holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and courtesy."  Also buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Emergence of English theatre in the 15th and 16th century.  Playwright and poet, Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of William Shakespeare but died tragically at age 29.  Professor Sutherland hypothesizes that had he lived, Marlowe, rather than Shakespeare might have been the greater poet. 

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) - voted in 2005 on the BBC radio program Today as the "greatest Briton who ever lived."  Why?   Because "he most embodied the soul of Britain."  Since he lived and wrote in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen who did not have an heir, the question of succession was important: "How is one king replaced with another?  He explores regicide in Macbeth, usurpation in Richard II, and inheritance in Henry IV and Henry V.  He returns to this question up through his last play, Henry VIII, but never comes up with a definitive answer."  Amazingly, he masterd all genres of plays: comedies, history plays, tragedies, problem play, Roman plays and romances.

Suggested Reading:  The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare ed by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (2001).  The Riverside Complete Shakespeare ed by G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin (1997).  Companion to Shakespeare by David Scott Kastan (1999).

The Metaphysical Poets (early and mid 17th century) - "metaphysical poetry was a highly cultivated brand of literature for the highly cultivated. One had to be able to write, in a sense, to be a reader. The metaphysical poets were deeply learned and above all, witty."  Such poems and poets are:
  • "The Flea" and "The Sun Rising" and "Death, Be Not Proud" by John Dunne (1572 - 1631)
  • The Temple by George Herbert (1593 - 1633)
  • "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell (1621 - 1678)
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton (1608-1674) - ambitiously set out to explain the ways of God to man via an epic poem, "bringing together the epic project of Homer and the text of the Bible".  To do so, he devised a new sort of language, between Latin and English.  To understand this work, one must set it in context of the English Civil War.   It is "work of literature that requires us to educate ourselves in order to make sense of it.  It is an extraordinary achievement that has challenged readers of every generation."

Note: English Civil War - led to trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son Charles II, and replacement of monarchy with a "Commonwealth of England" under Protectorate rule, Oliver Cromwell.  This did not last long. 

The Pilgrim's Progress (1670's) by John Bunyan (1628-1688) - after the monarchy of re-established with Charles II, Bunyan, who was a Christian soldier in Cromwell's army, was imprisoned for 12 years for continuing to preach without a license.

The Augustans - Order, Decorum and Wit (18th century) - "Literature in this period was moving inexorably toward cultivation and civilization. The aspiration was to match the great cultural achievements of Rome under Augustus, which is why writers called themselves Augustans. Literature, it was believed, should be polished and should reflect the values of the great emerging British civilization".

  • Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) by Samuel Johnson or Dr. Johnson (1709-1784)
  • An Essay on Criticism and Essay on Man by Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Suggested Reading:  The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell (1740-1795).  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) by Edward Gibbon

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) - a political satirist.  The book, "like everything in Swift's life and writing, is both terrifying and wonderful.  The book makes us wonder with genuine anxiety what we are, what we have done, and whether our accomplishments as a species are as worthwhile as we'd like to think.  Much of the literature of the Augustan period entertains and even instructs us, but Swift frightens us."  By the end of his life, he was showing clear signs of madness.

Suggested Reading:  The Writings of Jonathan Swift by Jonathan Swift.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) - "first great novelist in English literature".  Rise of the first novel at this time (1719) and in this place (London) coincided with the rise of capitalism.  Opening paragraph reads like something a journalist would write and in fact, Defoe was a journalist for 30 years.

Suggested Reading:  Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689) - "first wholly independent woman's voice in literature."  Wrote during the Restoration period in British history.  Long story short, the Puritan dictatorship established by Cromwell (who executed Kings Charles I) and forced his son, Charles II and court to live in exile in France, lasted for 11 years (1949 - 1660).  During this highly moralistic time, taverns, racecourses, prostitution houses and the theatre were closed down.  Books underwent extreme censorship.

Public opinion forced the restoration of the monarchy.  King Charles II returned from France and with him came liberty and freedom.  It was during this time that women could work as actors. (In the time of Shakespeare, boys whose voiced had not changed played women roles.)  Behn wrote a number of play in this time period and finished with a masterful novella, Oroonoko.   She is buried in Westminster Abbey, the first woman writer to do so.

Suggested Reading:  Oroonoko, The Rover and Other Works by Aphra Behn.

The Golden Age of Fiction: mid to late 18th century.  Several factors led to this time period being a "huge, empty, inviting field for literary talent and innovation".  1) Growth of literacy among the masses, not just the higher classes, 2) vast numbers of women readers thirst for this genre, 3) advances in printing technology, 4) rise of publishing infrastructure (manufacture and distribution) and 5) reviews of published works.   Noted works of fiction to come out of this time period are:
  • The Life and Optimism of Tristam Shandy (1759-1769) by Laurence Stern (1713-1768).
  • Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753) by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761)
  • Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (1789) - kidnapped from his home in Nigeria at 11 years old, Equiano became a slave - first as an African slave and then transported to the West Indies.  After several owners, he ultimately ended up serving Michael Pascal, a Royal Navy officer who renamed him Gustavus Vassa.  He became literate under Pascal and continued his studies under a new slaveowner, Robert King of Philadelphia.  Equiano eventually earned enough money to buy his freedom and returned to England.

Women Poets/Writers

  • Tilbury Speech and "On Monsieur's Departure" by Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) 
  • "My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old" by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)
  • The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)
  • Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft - spoke "loud, clearly, publicly and wholly unmuzzled."
Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789) and The Marriage of Heave and Hell (1790-1793) by William Blake (1752-1827) - "to read Blake requires, first of all, to learn how to read Blake; once that trick is mastered, few writers in English literature are so rewarding."

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (1771-1832) - born in Scotland. Wrote poetry such as The Lady of the Lake but is known for his historical fiction works such as Waverly, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor.

Romantic Revolution (1770-1830)
  • Lord Byron (1788-1824) was a literary genius.  Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan are his best known works. 
  • John Keats (1795-1821) wrote "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and the collection of "the Odes".
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (1797-1851) - Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who died shortly after Mary's birth.  She wrote this gothic novel while only 18 years old. 

Jane Austen (1775-1817) - one of the most beloved English writers.  She did not enjoy personal fame until well after her death. Intensely private, not much is know of her personal life. 
  • Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  • Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • Mansfield Park (1814)
  • Emma (1816)
  • Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818- post humously)
Suggested reading: A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869) by nephew James Edward-Austen Leigh.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) - a writer with a mission.  He believed that "the novel could make readers aware of the pains and needs of others" and that "he could penetrate the minds of his readers and change them."
  • Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
  • A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • David Copperfield (1849-1850)
  • Bleak House (1852-1853)
  • Little Dorritt (1855-1857)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  • Great Expectations (1860-1861)
1840's - Growth of the Realistic Novel - fiction mattered like never before.  Examples are:
  • Dombey and Sons (1846-1848) by Charles Dickens
  • Mary Barton: A Manchester Story (1848) by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Sybil (1945) by Benjamin Disraeli
  • Vanity Fair ( 1848) by William Makepeace Thackery
Bronte Sisters - initially published under the pseudonyms of Currier (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. 
  • Emily  Bronte (1818-1848) - died at the very young age of 29.  Her only novel was Wuthering Heights (1847).
  • Anne Bronte (1820-1849) wrote Agnes Grey(1847)  and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).
  • Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) wrote Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853) and The Professor (1857 posthumously).  Interested in the "portrait novel".  Jane Eyre is written in the first person. 
  • Read The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
George Eliot - Fiction and moral reflection.  Her real name is Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880).   She did not want to be associated with the rest of the "silly novels by lady novelists".   One of the leading writers of the Victorian era. 
  • The Mill on the Floss (1860)
  • Silas Marner (1861)
  • Middlemarch (1871-1872)
  • Daniel Deronda (1876)
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) - the "undisputed Grand Old Man of English literature".  Novelist and poet.

  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
  • Tess of the d'Ubervilles (1891)
  • Jude the Obscure (1895)
British Bestsellers
  • Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) - major innovator of crime fiction.  Stories were published in highly popular and easily accessible Strand magazine. 
  • H.G Wells (1866-1946) - wrote science fiction such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898).
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) - wrote during the height of the British Empire and wrote from his experiences as an officer in the British merchant marine. 
  • Lord Jim (1900)
  • Nostromo (1904)
  • Heart of Darkness (1902) - about the dark/evil side of colonization
James Joyce (1882-1941) - giant of Irish literature
  • The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) 
  • Ulysses (1922) 
  • Finnagan's Wake (1939) 
The Bloomsbury Group: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and E. M Forster (1897-1970) - this group of  influential writers moved fiction out of the Victorian era to Modernism.  Woolf introduced the technique called "streams of consciousness". 
  •   The Voyage Out (1915) - Woolf
  • Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  • To The Lighthouse (1927)
  • Orlando (1928)
  • A Room of One's Own (1929)
  • A Room with A View (1908) - Forster
  • Howard's End (1910)
  • A Passage to India (1924)
  • Aspects of the Novel (1927) - literary criticism
20th - 21st century British fiction
  • Henry James (1843-1916) - promoted literary realism with works like  The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Portrait of A Lady (1881)
  • D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) wrote Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Lover (1920) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928)
  • George Orwell (1903-1950)  wrote Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eight-Four (1949)
  • William Golding (1911-1993) wrote Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) wrote A Clockwork Orange (1962)
  • Salman Rushdie (1947 - )  wrote Midnight's Children (1981), Satanic Verses (1968)
Many, many books are now on my TBR list due to this course. 

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