Monday, June 20, 2016


Could Seamus Heaney be right? Might Beowulf be, in some sense, a postcolonial text intrinsically allied with the Irish literary tradition?  At first glance, the idea seems far-fetched. And yet ...

If we think in terms of postcolonial theory, of poco as a way of reading as much as a body of texts, then there are of course quite a few texts which in their narrative and structure embody the questions of a colonized people struggling to step forth from under domination by a foreign power. Shakespeare's The Tempest is a common text here, as it was in part inspired by the shipwreck of a small colonial flotilla, and the character of Caliban has been seen by many writers and critics as the embodiment of the subjugated or subaltern colonial subject. This view underlies many recent iterations of the Tempest story, such as Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête (A Tempest, 1968), which offers both a radical adaptation and response to Shakespeare's text.

The comparable figure in Beowulf, of course, is Grendel. Like Caliban, Grendel is the lone offspring of a powerful mother, an original inhabitant of the land on which the Shield-Danes built their hall of Heorot. The poem introduces Grendel's hatred of the Danes with the fact that their house was built upon his land. And, although the nominal hero here is the very many who slays Grendel and then his mother, there is room enough for a more sympathetic reading, as was demonstrated by John Gardner in his 1971 novel Grendel. And, with the enormous influence of Seamus Heaney's Irish-ized translation of Beowulf, the position of Ireland as England first colony has been re-framed in implicitly political terms. No less a figure than Professor Seth Lerer, in his essay “On fagne flor: The Postcolonial Beowulf, from Heorot to Heaney,” has taken up this question. Critics may counter, again, that such readings somehow distort the original sense and intent of the poem, but as with any literary text, we need to approach such claims with caution. Any search for the meaning and intent behind Beowulf is beset with difficulties, as it is already a palimpsest of multiple purposes, a warrior poem from a pagan era inscribed within a Christian polemic and rediscovered within the context of linguistic antiquarianism. By whom, and for whom, is such a text today? The postcolonial perspective may well be the answer for our times; the popularity of Heaney's translation will certainly keep this aspect of the poem in readers' minds.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Dream of the Rood

The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be the equivalent of "fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (vassal) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

This mixture of Christian and pagan elements, as we will see, marks Beowulf as well, though there the source is a thoroughly pagan poem, interpolated and redacted by the poet -- who still knew the craft of alliterative verse as well as his (or her) ancestors -- into a Christian epic.  But we can also see the pure flight of Saxon verse in religious lyrics, most famously the hymn ascribed to Caedmon by the Venerable Bede.  Bede gave the poem only in Latin, but some nameless monks in his monastery added the Saxon original, and its fame traveled far and wide in the dominion of the Angles and Saxons.

p.s. When following the link to The Dream of the Rood, please click on "Translation and Original Poem" on the left-side menu; that will display both texts side-by-side.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Welcome to English 205

Welcome to the blog for our section of ENGL 205, British Literature to 1800. As with any survey course, this one is selective; had we but worlds enough, and time, we could perhaps read a representative selection of literature from this thousand-year stretch, but alas we have only one semester.  So, we shall have to survey the shifting sands of the English canon as best we can -- paying homage alike to well-established monuments and the odd, forgotten Ozymandius – as well as investigating the strange and diverse forces through which canons themselves take shape.  We will begin by looking at the history of English as an academic field, and the cultural histories that have brought the “canon wars” to their current, uneasy truce.  We will read a wide variety of primary texts – poetry, drama, and fiction – from the full chronological range from Beowulf through 1800, along with selected commentaries and supplemental visual materials.  Weekly response essays of one page each will be the basis for our class discussions; there will also be two formal literary essays, a midterm and final on selected texts or themes.

Our textbook will the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition, Volume I.