ONLINE versions of all our courses available. Find out more.

English Literature - Course Outline - Group 2

Academic Course Timetable:
Sunday 2 August 2020 – Welcome Talk (Zoom) – 18.00 (BST)
Week 1
Monday 3 August 2020 to Friday 7 August 2020 – Tutorials (Zoom) - 14.00 - 15.30 (BST)
Week 2
Monday 10 August 2020 to Friday 14 August 2020 – Tutorials (Zoom) - 14.00 - 15.30 (BST)
*1-2-1 sessions to be arranged at suitable time for tutor and student (Zoom)


'What Is Reading?’ The Case of Geoffrey Chaucer


In school, we are encouraged not to question the idea that the only legitimate mode of reading is to unearth the author’s ‘intentions’. On this course, in the dialogic setup of the Oxbridge tutorial, we will use Chaucer’s works as a basis to rethink the possibilities of reading. Chaucer’s writings are perfect for this task because, apart from being seminal in English literature, they relentlessly problematize the idea of reading as a simple communication of authorial intentions to the reader. They encourage us to interrogate the interplay of readerly experience and authorial authority, of moral teaching and entertainment, and of interpretation and emotional response. No prior knowledge of Chaucer or experience with Middle English is assumed or required: we will work from parallel texts and translations. I will provide (online) secondary material to help spark our discussions.



Week 1


Day 1: Reading (and Chaucer)


Before we get into the thick of things, we will take the opportunity to talk about reading and what we think it is/can be/should be, to set the ball rolling ready for using Chaucer’s works to challenge or confirm our presuppositions. We will also talk about how we think one ought to go about reading Chaucer’s works, given their age and (sometimes) strangeness. Again, this will set the basis for later re-evaluations.


Preparation: No reading is required for this session—just come prepared with your thoughts!



Day 2: (Authority and) Experience


We will discuss perhaps Chaucer’s most famous creation, the Wife of Bath. Though today the character is lauded as a proto-feminist, equally striking from a modern perspective is the way her prologue and tale challenge the notion of literary ‘authority’ by pitting it against the personal ‘experience’ of the reader, encouraging a more personalized idea of reading, in which the reader, rather than the author, defines the text. From this basis, we can re-examine feminist readings of the Wife of Bath: to what extent should we care that such readings have been criticized as ‘anachronistic’?


Primary Reading: General Prologue, lines 788-821 (which establish the premise of the Tales), The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (and its aftermath).


Optional Primary Reading: The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale (compare to the Wife of Bath in terms of the relationship between the teller and the tale).


Secondary reading: Andrew Galloway, ‘Auctorite’, in A New Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Peter Brown (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019), pp. 21-35 [the rest may be of interest, but pp. 22-23 are the most important part for our discussion, on ‘Textual Authority’]; Robert Longsworth, ‘The Wife of Bath and the Samaritan Woman’, The Chaucer Review, 34 (2000), 372-87;.



Day 3: Finding Lessons in Tragedy


We will discuss the Monk’s prologue and his tale, which is a curious blend of bewailing the unavoidability of bad fortune and inculcating moral precepts in order to avoid it. As readers, how ought we to respond? We will discuss the Knight’s and Host’s immediate responses to the tale.


Primary Reading: The Monk’s Prologue and Tale (and its aftermath).


Secondary Reading: ‘Fortune’, from The Oxford Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Douglas Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).



Day 4: Interpreting Fables


The Nun’s Priest responds to the Monk’s tale with a beast fable about a cockerel and a fox. Such fables were essential to late-medieval ideas about the morality ‘contained’ in stories. We will examine these ideas. We will also discuss the relation of this tale to the Monk’s tale, as well as how we think this pair of tales deal with Chaucer’s opposing pairs of literary principles: ‘earnest’ and ‘game’, and ‘sentence’ (moral teaching) and ‘solace’ (entertainment).


Primary Reading: The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and Tale.


Secondary Reading: Stephen Manning, ‘The Nun's Priest's Morality and the Medieval Attitude toward Fables’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 59 (1960), pp. 403-16.



Day 5: Week 1 Roundup, Reading for the Moral?


It has become standard among critics to think of Chaucer as a jokester who plays with the idea of the ethical ‘sentence’ of stories. C.S. Lewis and J. Allan Mitchell challenge this popular view. Armed with our knowledge of the tales we have looked at, we will discuss whether we agree with these dissenting voices, and what we gain and lose by seeing Chaucer as writing in ‘earnest’ or in ‘game’.


Reading: C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), pp. 163-64; J. Allan Mitchell, ‘5 - Moral Chaucer: Ethics of Exemplarity in the Canterbury Tales’, in Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower (Cambridge: Brewer, 2004), pp. 79-93.



Week 2


Day 6: Interpreting Dreams


The House of Fame is an earlier work by Chaucer, and it is similar to most of his other early works in being structured around a dream. Focusing on the first two books of Fame, we will discuss how Chaucer uses the premise of the dream to explore the idea of reading. We will also discuss the eagle’s theory of sound, and its implications for our modern ideas of the separateness of literature and science.


Primary Reading: The House of Fame, Books I and II; look up some Biblical dreams like Nebuchadnezzar’s and those interpreted by Joseph; also, optionally, take a glance at Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, proof of Chaucer’s interest in what we now call science.


Secondary Reading: Steven F. Kruger, ‘Dreaming’, in A Concise Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Corinne Sanders (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 69-89. Discussion of The House of Fame begins on p. 79, but the preceding pages offer a good summary of the context for the genre of the dream poem.



Day 7: Fame, Authority and Truth


So far it will have become clear that Chaucer loves to quote ‘authorities’, be they Biblical, classical or philosophical. In fact, if you look at the earliest surviving copies of Chaucer’s works, contemporary scribes and readers have almost invariably highlighted these ‘authorities’ by writing the authority’s name in the margin next to the quotation. Evidently, ‘authority’ was central to late-medieval theories of reading. We will discuss how, in the third and final book of Fame, Chaucer radically re-evaluates the stakes of authority.


Primary Reading: The House of Fame, Book III.


Secondary Reading: Laurel Amtower, ‘Authorizing the reader in Chaucer's House of Fame’, Philological Quarterly, 79 (2000), 273-91.



Day 8: The Emotional Reader


From the perspective of most GCSE and A-Level mark schemes, it might seem strange to think about one’s emotional response as a reader. We have already seen the importance of this in The Monk’s Tale, though, and affect is an even more prominent part of Chaucer’s depiction of reading in Troilus and Criseyde. Today we will look at the first three books of the poem, but the first 56 lines will be our main focus, as they show most directly the quasi-religious emotional response which Chaucer imagines for himself as a reader and for his audience.


Primary Reading: Troilus and Criseyde, Books I, II and III (Note: Do not worry if you don’t manage to read it all! The beginning will be our focus).


Secondary Reading: ‘Emotion’, by Sarah McNamer, in A New Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Peter Brown (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019), pp. 123-35.



Day 9: Intention and the Reader


Late-medieval copies of classical works would usually be preceded by a preface called the intentio auctoris (‘the intention of the author’). We will examine Chaucer’s argument with Love on the topic of authorial intention in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women, as well as Chaucer’s ‘Retractions’, in which he asks readers to pray for him to be forgiven for writing those works of his that ‘sownen into synne’ (‘tend towards sin’). We will use these texts as a basis for a discussion of the usefulness and limitations of, and alternatives to, reading for the author’s ‘intentions’.


Primary Reading: Legend of Good Women, G 234-545 [in the Kline translation this passage begins ‘I, kneeling by this flower, with good intent’, and ends ‘And right thus the legend did I make.’ In the Riverside edition, it is the G-version, which is always on the right-side column of each page!]; the ‘Retractions’ at the end of The Canterbury Tales (X (I) 1081-1092) [for this text, Harvard do not have an interlinear translation, but they do have a translation if you search ‘Harvard Chaucer retraction’].


Secondary Reading: Victor Yelverton Haines, ‘Where Are Chaucer's" Retracciouns"?’, Florilegium, 25 (1991), 127-50.


Optional Secondary Reading: Elizabeth Archibald, ‘Declarations of "Entente" in "Troilus and Criseyde", The Chaucer Review, 25 (1991), 190-213 [just in case you are interested in the idea of ‘entente’ in Troilus].



Day 10: Week 2 Roundup, The Complete Reader?


By looking again at Troilus and Criseyde, including its last two books, and especially its ending, we will examine the compatibility of the approaches to reading which we have examined. We will also ask if any of these modes of reading is superior to the others, and why. Like Troilus at the end of his story, we will finally zoom out from Chaucer and think about how our conclusions might affect our approach to reading in the future, both inside and outside of the classroom.


Primary Reading: Troilus and Criseyde, including Books IV and V, but especially V. 1744-1869.


Secondary Reading: Elizabeth Freund, ‘Introduction: the order of reading’, in The Return of the Reader (Abingdon: Routledge, 1987), pp. 1-20 [a theoretical look at ‘reader-response criticism’. How far do we agree with the chapter’s arguments?].



Editions and Translations


First of all, a reminder that the focus will be on the primary reading, so the most important thing is to give that a good go, which will probably mean starting to prepare a few weeks before our teaching starts. As for the secondary reading, just try to read as much as you can of the suggestions which you find useful and interesting. Also, just a reminder that I will send you copies of all of the secondary reading.


As for the primary reading: for The Canterbury Tales, I would recommend the free online Harvard interlinear translations (just search ‘Harvard interlinear Chaucer’), which allow you to easily glance at the Middle English text if you are feeling daring. Harvard also have an online interlinear translation of Troilus and Criseyde (search ‘Harvard interlinear Troilus’), but only of Book I, unfortunately.


For the rest, I would recommend verse translations rather than prose ones, if only to be reminded that most of this material is written in verse (the exceptions are A Treatise on the Astrolabe and the ‘Retractions’. So, for everything except The Canterbury Tales and the first book of Troilus, I would recommend A.S. Kline’s translations, available free online, which try to keep the rhyme the same as it is in Middle English where possible. The drawback with Kline is that no line numbers are given, which will be awkward when we are looking at the texts together, but I am sure we will work it out! Note: Kline’s Troilus and Criseyde is called Troilus and Cressida.


Versions of the Middle English text can be found online, but if you buy a physical edition, difficult words are glossed (translated/explained) for you at the bottom of the page. I would recommend The Riverside Chaucer, which I use, and which has useful introductions to the poems and good notes at the back. Whether you get a physical copy or not, I would encourage you to look at the Middle English as much as possible, and to try in essays to quote from the Middle English rather than a translation. When dealing with the Middle English text, a trick is to use the Chaucer Glossary or Middle English Dictionary (both free online) to see the multiple possible meanings of Middle English words. Seeing the polyvalences of key words like ‘sentence’ and ‘solas’, for example, can help you to draw out the complexities of the ideas we are dealing with. This approach can lead to interesting essays.