Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Canon Question

I'll explain why later, but for now, I just have a question.  Interpreted broadly, what literature in English written between, say, 1475 and 1700 should every English major have read?

(I'd love to hear why you've chosen your choices, too!)


  1. EVERY English major is a tough standard. At a minimum, I’d say a few Shakespeare plays and Paradise Lost. That’s partly about cultural capital, which I think about a lot with my students—what will people out in the world expect an English major to know?—but they also both teach so easily. Enduring appeal is part of what canonicity is about.

    Next most important would be a selection of lyric poems, since that’s an important genre for the period and teaches mastery of another skill set (and because you can include female writers!).

    A very distant third, and one I’m willing to cut, is (a book of) the Faerie Queene.

    Other than that, I can’t make a ruling on necessity; non-Shax drama is great, and there’s prose I love, but to me the must-teaches are about the names/works that everyone agrees on, and/or major or representative genres.

  2. I would echo Flavia and maybe add Sir Thomas More's Utopia and John's Donne's poetry. Both of these reverberate throughout much of the canon, I think.

    It would be great to include Aphra Behn, too.

  3. Hamlet for sure, just because it's so iconic. Otherwise, I'd have a hard time coming up with specific works -- there are writers I think every English major should have some contact with, like Wyatt and Sidney and Donne, but I'd be hard pressed to say they need to read a particular poem by those writers. (And I have to admit I didn't read Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queene until grad school, and do not feel greatly deprived by this fact.)

  4. Hmm. English major or English professor?


    Gawain and the Green Knight
    At least some of Margery Kempe
    At least some of the Paston Letters
    More's Utopia
    Some of Michel de Montaigne's essays
    Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Lear, As You Like It, Romeo & Juliet
    Some of John Donne -- certainly Valediction
    Marvell's Coy Mistress and his Garden, at least
    Paradise Lost, if at all possible (I didn't get to this one until graduate school, I admit)
    Anne Bradstreet: A good selection
    Mary Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative
    Jonathon Edward's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God