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"Thinking Rhetorically and Seriously in the British Literature Survey"

by Dr. Andrew Black, Murray State University

(December 2018 Issue / PDF)

Any teacher of a British literature survey course knows the peculiar challenge of covering a broad and expansive period in a semester of roughly forty-two hours of class meeting time. Teaching the course either as a general elective or a requirement for majors necessitates some changes in approach, but the same basic imperatives and limitations. Because of the volume of writing and writers that must be covered, surveys tend to privilege extensive attention to generic developments and historical context over close, focused critical inquiry. Similarly, I have taught a required humanities course to students in the Honors College that covers the even more awe-inspiring mandate of covering “the world’s literary and philosophical works from the ancient to the modern eras.”  As such, I am always looking for elastic concepts or categories that I can use to encourage students to critical insights even as we must by necessity rush through the material. For both myself and the students, these survey courses that cover such a broad range seem to be a fool’s mission or a necessary evil. Yet many of the students I teach are English Education majors who need this comprehensive canvassing, so they can be prepared to present it to their own students at the secondary level. And students who major in English Literature will (hopefully) move from this expansive appraisal to more focused inspection in their upper-level courses.

The problems of these courses are well explained by the valuable recent essay collection Teaching the Literature Survey Course: New Strategies for College Faculty. Despite the “admirable intentions” of the survey, James M. Lang contends, “Reading the classic works in the field and then asking students to process them in an essay or midterm exam [. . .] gives students a superficial exposure that seems unlikely to remain with them two years after the conclusion of the course when they are picking up the material again in an upper-level course” (2). In courses like these, organizing themes are not merely important but necessary to avoid “superficial exposure.” As Kristina Lucas and Sarah Fiona Winters write in that volume, thematic focus “conveys an idea about the period and its preoccupations” and “provides lively and accessible through-lines that enable our students to learn the discipline’s foundational skills” (156).

Otherwise, students consume a seemingly arbitrary selection of “greatest hits,” and the syllabus becomes like a strict dietary program rather than an invitation to further exploration. As I explain here, my courses wrestle with the ways literature both affirms and challenges foundational truths, as well as how absolute truths come under pressure through relativist confrontation. This happens both in the texts themselves and in the scope of literature from the Old English period to the end of the eighteenth century, from Beowulf to Eliza Haywood. This organization may sound reductive in its teleology, and it doesn’t take an extremely critical reader to be suspicious of exceptions. And that’s the point: in setting up this trajectory, I invite students – just as the authors they read do – to challenge foundations, tenets of belief, and the possibility of overreaching systems of classification. Yet I also encourage them to write their own histories of literary and intellectual change, to find a governing idea or abstraction to center their inquiries of the texts we read. It invites a healthy suspicion of the monolithic term of “literature” as the Wikipedia currently describes it: “an art form, or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value . . .” (“Literature”). That “value” has been the subject of critique by scholars: John Guillory challenges “the illusion of a fixed and exclusive ‘canon’” (xvi), while Gerald Graff has critiqued the futile canonist desire to transmit a “coherent body of values,” arguing instead to “mak[e] the conflicts of literary studies part of the subject matter of literary education itself” (100, 122). The exercise I describe takes as inherent the imperatives of critics such as Guillory and Graff in describing two central, conflicting values that unsettle a homogeneous definition of literature, one that many students already accept at face value. To do this, I rely on two characters who have become familiar to my pedagogy: the “rhetorical man” and the “serious man.”
(Figure 1)

                        Richard Lanham: The Rhetorical and the Serious            

In survey courses, I have had much luck producing enthusiastic discussions from one remarkable page of Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg’s anthology The Rhetorical Tradition, thanks to a happy coincidence that I was reading it during my first experience teaching a survey course as a graduate student.[1] I made a copy of that page on a whim several years ago and I have not stopped handing it out since then (see fig. 1). The text to which I refer is an excerpt titled “Rhetoric” from Stanley Fish’s 1989 book Doing What Comes Naturally, in which he quotes key passages from Lanham’s 1976 The Motives of Eloquence. On this page, both Lanham’s concept and Fish’s commentary give us much to think about.

Lanham describes two archetypes that help us understand the dispute between foundational and relativist thought – the serious man (homo serioses) and the rhetorical man (homo rhetoricus). While the serious man believes in a stable reality and objective truths that can be explained through speech, the rhetorical man thrives on the lack of these. The rhetorical man looks to succeed argumentatively either by recognizing discontinuity or by exploiting beliefs in the cosmological connections that the serious man takes for granted. To employ the dialectical poles that Michael McKeon proposes in his study of the English novel and its origins, if the serious man operates sincerely under what is perhaps “naïve empiricism,” the rhetorical man is energized by an “extreme skepticism” (47-52). Lanham proposes these categories to discuss the development of rhetorical training in style in the early modern period. Yet Fish frames these suggestive “views of human nature” as representative of “the history of Western thought [that] could be written as the history of this quarrel.” That is, that all knowledge, ethical systems, and world views could be distinguished as either rhetorical or serious, and their actors as operating oppositionally under the virtues and methods of either a social or central self. 

Lanham’s definition of the serious man emphasizes the stability of the central self and the way language protocol reinforces this. The ideals of the serious man are linked to his philosophy of communication, which hinge on the implicit union of sign and signifier. That ideal for communication matches what the serious man believes identity should be: the stable link between who he says he is and who he really is, between what he expresses and what he believes and feels. If literary language diverges from “serious” language, the imperatives behind it are often viewed as the same: it should express something faithful and true about the “referent society” in which it exists. For many students who read this, the “serious” man simply reflects a very broad concept of religious belief. The serious man’s orthodoxy conforms to absolute truth and transcendent divinity and the morality he accepts that can be extrapolated from these. It maps onto a biblical narrative about language and revelation that many religious students either inherently believe or are deeply familiar with, and that more secular students typically reject as a kind of rigid foundationalism.  But even more liberal-minded students defend many of the serious man’s values - for instance, that what Lanham calls sincerity is a noble imperative, and that one should be “faithfu[l] to the self who is doing the feeling.” This is more or less what the secular student believes he or she is doing when rejecting religious orthodoxy and normative behavior. Feelings are real, even if behavior and language can be a disguise for them.

In contrast to the serious man, the language Lanham uses to describe the rhetorical man is not only colorful but also provocatively carries more than a hint of villainy. That’s the way I read this rich passage when I first encountered it, and when I ask students to parse out its meaning, they usually echo that reaction. Since he has no “loyalties” and sees the world as a “game” that he “manipulate[s]” in order to “win,” he immediately resembles a shape-shifting trickster who, we can imagine, the serious man must overcome or expose. As Fish writes in his analysis of Lanham, “What serious man fears – the invasion of the fortress of essence by the contingent, the protean, and the unpredictable – is what rhetorical man celebrates and incarnates.” Rhetorical man, perhaps, lies and cheats his way to power, deceiving serious men through devious and dishonest activity. If we had to trust someone, it would be the serious man, while the rhetorical man would do his best to deceive us.

Based on this brief description, it would be a fun parlor game to organized different thinkers into these categories. Both Socrates and Jesus are serious men who disdain and reject the deceptive function of rhetoric that corrupts or capitalizes on the ideals they evangelize. The Sophists are rhetorical men, as are Roman statesmen such as Cicero and Caesar, relying on language to create legal and political realities through shrewd forensic and deliberative oratory. On the serious side: Berkeley, Kant, and Emerson; Milton, Arnold, and Foster-Wallace. On the rhetorical: Hume, Nietzsche, and Derrida; Rochester, Poe, and Rabelais. Yet these are hasty readings that any serious reader of the schools of thought and thinkers reductively described above will challenge. Socrates employs the very rhetoric he is said to denounce. Jesus’ mysticism relies on an ostensibly radical interpretation of Hebrew law, one that defies the intensely “serious” Mosaic foundationalism of the Pharisees. Behind Cicero’s protean qualities as a statesman is a view of the phenomenological world as stable, and a belief that character emerges as a quality not of the text, but the speaker who gives it. And so on. To be fair, Fish qualifies the teleology he suggests (he does not claim such a contested history should be written), because Lanham does not intend his characterizations to be so far-reaching. But the point that Lanham does make is that the fundamentals of rhetorical training beginning with Aristotle encourage the subversive potential that the rhetorical man fulfills. Or it attempts to correct it, as eighteenth- century enlightenment rhetoricians did. Through its history as a discipline, both pedagogical and analytical, rhetoric itself has faced challenges from rhetorical and serious men.

When I ask students to tease out the distinctions of these two ideals, they focus on some of the more ostensibly neutral descriptions - what it means, for instance, for the rhetorical man to have a “natural agility in changing orientations;” that he “dwells and has dwelt in several value-structures;” that he is “centered in time and concrete local event.” Intriguingly, Lanham’s descriptions juxtapose the stable and the innate (”natural” “dwells” “centered”) with the contingent (”changing” “several” “local” ). Taken out of the context of Lanham’s project regarding early modern stylistics, the passages suggestively encourage students to think of each character and author in these archetypal terms. At first, many students side with the seemingly valorized serious man yet end up acknowledging his potential inability to navigate a world that is so clearly rhetorical. For others, the serious man is a straw man, a stereotype of a religious dogmatic who uncritically accepts and enforces inflexible values. The presence of rhetorical and serious men throughout the Western tradition allows us to consider not only what literary texts mean, but also what they do and who they might be written for. All of the texts I assign operate within the dialectic of serious and rhetorical, between a desire for foundational truth and its comforting authority and a need for mobility and flexibility when circumstances confront that imagined stability.

Rhetorical and Serious Men in the British Literature Survey

To best explain how I introduce these concepts and integrate them into assignments, I will explain the early structure of the classes I teach. However, my hope is that any teacher of a survey can find a way to integrate these. For instance, in my world literature survey, I introduce the handout after assigning a selection from Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In that class, I draw on Aristotle’s contention that character (ethos) is the product of the speech rather than the speaker. Aristotle’s implications are that identity is based on speech and performance rather than essence and substance. We then move into The Odyssey and Odysseus, a man at his best when acting rhetorically, even as he is haunted by the serious responsibility to the familial duty he has left behind. The course culminates with Don Quixote and the profound yet ridiculous seriousness with which its hero views the world even as his reinvention seems a rhetorical gesture.

In the first four weeks of my British Literature survey, I assign the following texts to cover Old English and British literature:

  1. “The Dream of the Rood”
  2. “Caedmon’s Hymn” from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  3. Beowulf lines 1-1000 (until Grendel’s death)
  4. Judith
  5. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  6. The Canterbury Tales: “Prologue,” “The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale,” and “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.”
  7. Excerpts from The Book of Margery Kempe

I introduce the handout toward the end of our class session on Chaucer’s Pardoner. Though struggling through the Middle English, students generally enjoy this reading because of the Pardoner’s outright hypocrisy and comically contemptuous descriptions of the people he dupes. He is an easy character to dislike, which they assume Chaucer intends. For these classes, the Pardoner is a perfect opportunity to introduce Lanham’s concepts.

Since we have already gone over the genre mechanics of the estates satire in reading the Prologue, we discuss the way the Pardoner is a satiric representative of the state of medieval pardoners and the church. One tension is whether Chaucer is attacking religion in general, or the Pardoner and his methods specifically. After all, the narrator tells us in the Prologue that “Ne was ther swich another pardoner” (A: 278, 695). [2] This often leads us to a discussion about the institutionalization of religion and spirituality, and the way the Pardoner exploits his association with the “auctoritee / Which that by bulle ygraunted was to me” (A: 332, 98-99). The Pardoner’s “auctoritee” is dependent on the church that authorizes him. This will be a compelling contrast to the next pilgrim we will meet: The Wife of Bath. When the Wife announces in her opening lines that her “Experience” will be “auctoritee” even though it in no way resembles the Pardoner’s (A: 300, 1-2). The Pardoner depends on a serious foundation for his rhetorical activity, while the Wife contends that her ruinous marriages are foundation enough for her to be taken seriously.

The Pardoner exploits the rhetorical possibility through which seriousness can become a persuasive tool. The listeners whom he describes speaking to are “lewed peple”  who “loven tales olde” because “Swiche thynges kan they wel reporte and holde” (A: 332, 149-50). The condescension toward his audience extends also to his contempt for the naivety of their beliefs in the very spirituality that he enforces. Stoked by his audience’s belief in a “central” and “referential society,” he hawks relics that fit this serious symbolic ontology. The relics contain spiritual resonance or power “as wenen they echoon” (or so they suppose). The ironic distance of “wenen,” or supposing, is the imaginative domain where this rhetorical man works “not to discover reality but to manipulate it.” And this informs the Pardoner’s belief in literature - embodied in his “tale” about death and greed which works as a “moral tale . . . Which I am wont to preche for to winne” (A: 332, 172-73).

The Pardoner’s promise of a “moral tale” contrasts to the Host’s earlier insistence for a “mery tale” (A: 329, 3). Here, our class discussion takes a more abstract diversion into what “moral” means, as I ask for synonyms, which result in suggestions such as decent, humane, good, ethical, and principled. The Pardoner flaunts his immorality even as he is associated with the final word on morality itself, the Bible and the Church. He presents a moral tale about the consequences of greed because it is what is expected of him, but he uses it for immoral and selfish means. Therefore, we conclude, the Pardoner follows Lanham’s description by “playing freely with (morality)” as one of the “rules the current game enforces.” The Pardoner is not rhetorical merely because he is dishonest, but because he dwells “not in a single value-structure but in several.” His listeners believe in morality, the high-minded kind that the Knight describes in the tale that follows the Prologue. And the Pardoner, knowing this, understands these “rules” so he can play with them. Is the Pardoner relativist or absolutist? It does not matter, only the game he plays. This often troubles the students’ initial ironic reading of the Pardoner that they felt Chaucer intended: to see themselves as knowing judges to the Pardoner’s bad behavior. Rather, I point them to what might be a canny celebration of the Pardoner’s rejection of the inflexible values that make his victims such easy prey. That’s contradicted when he perhaps foolishly attempts to ask the pilgrims to “unbokle anon thy purse” for the very relics he earlier admitted were part of a scam, only to have the Host threaten to enshrine his testicles “in a hogges toord!” (A: 343, 667). Still, this kind of critique would be expected from a serious man like the host. As Helen Phillips writes, the performance is disturbing to any audience because it contains “the potential to disrupt our confidence in ourselves as shrewd listeners, as well as dealing with . . . The Knight’s insistence on simply imposing social harmony [and] refusing to countenance any conflict” (156).

Because of the breadth of material to be covered, my survey cannot cover that other great Chaucerian disparity between serious and rhetorical: the Knight’s Tale and the Miller’s Tale. In the former, romance and its values are presented uncritically, while the latter presents humanity at its most venal and vulgar. But they have read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I ask them to reconsider using Lanham’s terms. As the poem opens, Gawain is bound both by his duty to an institution, Arthur’s court, and to the virtues that are symbolically laid out in the Pentangle emblazoned on his shield:

. . .for the form of the figure is a five-pointed star
and each line overlaps and links with the last
so is ever eternal, and when spoken of in England
is known by the name of the endless knot.
so it suits the soldier in his spotless armor,
fully faithful in five ways five times over.
For Gawain was as good as the purest gold —
Devoid of vices but virtuous, loyal . . .
and kind. (A: 217, 627-34) [3]

Gawain’s core identity is connected to this symbol, which operates according to an analogous numerology in which “five sets of five were fixed in this knight” (A: 217, 656). Of course, Gawain’s stringently unambiguous system is ultimately confounded by temptation and fear, represented by Bertilak (the Green Knight) and his wife. As the poem closes and Gawain has failed to uphold his values, his new symbol is the girdle, which lacks the objective symbolic stability of the pentangle. This girdle is “the symbol of my sin . . . a sign of my fault and offence and failure, / of the cowardice and covetousness I came to commit” (A: 255, 2506-07). The serious view that drove Gawain has been replaced by a haunted but human vision of his own frailty and tendency toward the rhetorical.

Moving to the Early Modern period, Renaissance dramatists give us no end of conflicts between the rhetorical and the serious. Since all English majors at my university are required to take a single-author course on Shakespeare, I typically prefer to assign Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great: Part One, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, or John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Renaissance tragedy provides countless scenarios in which a character appeals to and lives by greater virtues only to find them thwarted or threatened by rhetorical combatants. In the case of Tamburlaine, the contradictions are profound: though deceptive and persuasive, he believes in his own seriousness above all else, a “life exempt from servitude” in which “letters and commands / Are countermanded by a greater man” (16: I. ii. 21-22). Psychologically shattered by his son’s murder, Kyd’s Hieronimo asks the heavens, “How should we term your dealings to be just, If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust?” (53, III.ii.10-11) The Duchess of Malfi initially presents Bosola as the arch-rhetorical man, a “politic dormouse” of “painted honour” (A: 1129, 1.2.188, 1179, 2.313), only to have his cynicism throttled and virtue stirred by the Duchess’ tragic example. Drawing on Stephen Greenblatt’s definition of the improviser as having “the ability to capitalize on the unforeseen and to transform given materials into one’s scenario” (227), we can often see the rhetorical man as the means through which the most tragic of events occur.

The early modern investment in aesthetics points us to Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry, a treatise at once strikingly rhetorical in its vindication for a poetry that has no truth value, while dauntingly serious in its belief that the poet “ever sets virtue so out in her best colors” (B: 561). The transition to Sidney’s poetics marks, for our course, the first thorough discussion of what imaginative literature is, what it should be, and what it can do. Yet in our other readings, this question is at once implicit (for the Gawain Poet) and explicit (for the Pardoner). It also drives the narrator of Chaucer’s Tales, particularly in the proviso that closes his Prologue, where he promises only to “speak hir [the pilgrims] words properly”  lest he “telle his tale untrewe, / Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe” (A: 278-79, 731, 737-38). The narrator promises mimetic accuracy as a matter of ethical propriety: he is, he promises, just a reporter. Entrenched among a series of contrasts that alternately confound and enrich his poetic vision, Sidney writes in his Defence:

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden. (B:552)

While later he will discuss at length the “art of imitation” that is poetry’s goal, Sidney here celebrates art over essence, the aestheticized “golden” over the naturalistic “brazen,” the “rich” against the “lovely.” Sidney’s “defense” is not of a rhetorical way of life, but of a rhetorical way of writing that an English tongue is “most fit to honour” (B: 564). And in so doing, he frees the poet from being occupied with claims to truth over productions of beauty.

It’s another promising transition, then, to move from Sidney to the so-called Metaphysical poets.  T.S. Eliot famously argued that they possessed a “sensibility that could devour every experience” through a “simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic” intensity (247). In the way Eliot frames that syntactical and structural activity, the rhetorical “sensibility” consumes and reconfigures “serious” experience.  In this, we not only see John Donne’s attempt to canonize otherwise unworthy lovers and their lyrics, but also in the grand rhetorical gesture of Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, where the serious foundation of time can be “devoured” through amorous activity, by “languish[ing] in his slow-clapped power” (B: 1346, 40). It is further instructive to consider Samuel Johnson’s criticisms of the metaphysical tendency toward “occult resemblances” in which “nature and art . . . [are] ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions” (C: 1818). Yet turning from Donne’s amatory poetry to his Holy Sonnets finds a poet who acknowledges his rhetorical behavior (“I change in vowes, and in devotions”) while desiring a transforming serious belief (“impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil”) (B: 960-968).

Moving into the Restorationmeans confronting John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who takes a special joy in perplexing reigning orthodoxies. For Rochester, “reason” is managerial, oppressing the precious instincts which produce real physical and emotional pleasure. From The Satyr against Reason and Mankind:

My reason is my friend, yours is a cheat;
Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
This asks for food, that answers, “What's a clock?” (C: 127, 106-110)

That we organize the fulfillment of our appetites around a schedule is “perverse” for this rhetorical man who accepts, in Lanham’s terms, “no transcendent loyalties.” Since Rochester and the lifestyle he embodies becomes the inspiration for William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, we can then explore the Restoration opinion of the hypocrisy of the outwardly serious and puritanical “Pinchwifes” who practically invite that strategic rhetorical man to expose it. Wycherley’s otherwise licentious Jack Horner can be read as heroic because he flouts such a system and assists in the liberation of Pinchwife’s kept wife.

Since Lanham is writing about Renaissance style and its underlying patriarchal ideologies, it makes sense that he would refer to masculine archetypes. Thinking about gender allows us to expand and critique these accordingly. Is gender serious or rhetorical? Innate or invented? Like the Wife of Bath, early modern female authors had to be rhetorical – relying on experience and craft rather than authority – in their dramatic, creative entry to an exclusive world of letters, while pleading for inclusion to the serious domain where they might be accepted. Margery Kempe describes her moments of zealous affective piety as deeply personal and divinely inspired, even as she depicts the audiences who witness her as suspicious of a performance. Reading The Book of Margery Kempe, students are put in the same role through their skepticism of her claims, reading it as either (sympathetically) the result of trauma or (cynically) as celebrity-seeking opportunism. Margery’s audacity lies in producing a narrative and defending it, demanding a serious authority that she is not likely to receive. This insistence that she be taken seriously, even if it involves a near-fanatical belief and behavior, often pushes students to see her as a proto-feminist avatar. In the seventeenth century, the canny but muted feminism of Aemilia Lanyer and Mary Wroth occurs in genres where they at once imitate male discourse and subvert it. To read later writers such as Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn is to understand the protean strategies women had to take to enter a guarded print culture as well as the challenges they face. Katherine Philips’ reliance on familiar metaphysical conceits, for instance, allows her to inject that tradition with a female desire that it previously had excluded.

On that note, my course always ends with Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, a vivid example of the kind of prose entertainment early eighteenth-century audiences demanded. “Eliza Haywood,” nee Elizabeth Fowler, was a rhetorical figure whose biography vanishes behind layers of self-fashioning, as she began her career as a notorious writer of licentious romance before transitioning to the witty moral sentiment of The Female Spectator and The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless. Any reader of Fantomina is quick to note the parallels between the shape-shifting titular character and Haywood herself. The novel begins with “A YOUNG Lady of distinguished Birth, Beauty, Wit, and Spirit” who “puts in practice a little Whim which came immediately into her Head, to dress herself as near as she could in the Fashion of those Women who make sale of their Favours” (C: 609-610). This begins a series of transformations into different personas to win the affections of the fickle libertine Beauplaisir. Previously with no experience beyond her own imagination, the young lady shows what Lanham calls a “natural agility in changing orientations,” and a “sense of identity [that] depends on the reassurance of daily histrionic reenactment.” Students find this novel both absurdly unrealistic and endlessly entertaining: the daffy Beauplaisir is continually fooled by this master of desire who seduces him and exposes both his inconstancy and his unstable, fleeting passions. When I ask students to think of a comparison to contemporary popular culture, they often mention Mystique, the villainous mimic of the X-Men universe whose chameleon-like powers allow her to impersonate others perfectly. Driven by desire and curiosity, and almost singularly gifted with the ability to produce desiring audiences, Fantomina becomes a surrogate for the emerging idea of the “novel” itself in its ability to “prevail” in the game at hand. And far from the masculine traditions that Wroth and Philips saw themselves uneasily inheriting, Haywood and other eighteenth-century women would embrace prose romance and the print culture that produced it with a gusto that makes a striking contrast to their predecessors. Haywood saw an emerging mass media and the stories it could tell as an opportunity to produce an identity – or like her protagonist, many identities – that did not depend on the values of male gatekeepers. From the Wife of Bath to Fantomina, women were implored to exist in the stable confines of patriarchal gender values, which required richly subtle rhetorical acts to establish, a la Lanham, “through [her] words the imperatives and urgencies to which [she and her] fellows must respond.”  

By the end of the course, we have just touched on the Enlightenment and the radical values it puts forward. By many accounts of Enlightenment history, this intellectual trajectory hinges on what Immanuel Kant calls man’s “emergence from his self-imposed nonage” (384). That is, according to Kant, a belief that the serious values and prejudices of the old order have been assaulted, revolutionized by a new emphasis on reason. However, following critical assessments of Enlightenment thought, has one serious regime been replaced by another? Turning to Gulliver’s Travels and the Houyhnhnms, so exclusive in their high-minded rationality that they advocate genocide for those who fail to meet it, the class reaches answers if not conclusive then at least productive as they move to a later survey of British literature in which these questions persist.

The Serious Roots of the Literary Tradition

Above, I quoted James M. Lang’s concern that the survey offers only “superficial exposure.” A pessimistic, albeit practical response is that it is impossible for the fourteen-week survey to provide anything but. Therefore, we can invite students to scrutinize the authority of the survey and the canon it reproduces. For students, the reductive term “literature” suggests a coherent collection of texts, unified around enduring claims to aesthetic excellence. It is, in Karl Marx’s a “simple abstraction,” because it “expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society” (1030). In concealing its production and formation, the abstraction is idealized, authorized, and exploited as stable and coherent truth by those for whom it is most valuable. Much like the Pardoner’s relic, it creates meaning by concealing other meanings. With its voluminous anthology as a heavy symbol, the survey might work to substantiate the enshrinement of an eternal and authoritative category of literature – a “serious,” unified canon. Or we can see the survey class as a series of brief but meaningful encounters with rhetorical and serious men whose frictions produce change and creativity.

Works Cited

Dujardin, Gwynn, James M. Lang, and John A. Staunton, editors. Teaching the Literature Survey             Course. West Virginia UP, 2018.

Eliot, T.S. “The Metaphysical Poets,” T.S. Eliot: Selected Essays 1917-1932. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932.

Fish, Stanley. Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. Duke UP, 1989.

Fish, Stanley. “Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. 2nd ed. Bedford St. Martins, 2001, pp. 1609-1627.

Greenblatt, Stephen, General Editor. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th Ed, 3 vols. W.W.             Norton and Company, 2018.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago UP, 1980.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago UP, 1993.

Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago UP, 1987.

Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment,” The Enlightenment: A Comprehensive Anthology. Translated and Edited by Peter Gay. Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy, edited by J.R. Mulryne. A&C Black, 1989.

Lanham, Richard. The Motives of Eloquence. Yale UP, 1976.

Lang, James M. “The Promises and Perils of the Survey.” Dujardin, Lang, and Staunton, pp. 1-7.

Lucas, Kristina and Sarah Fiona Winters, “Thematic Organization and the First-Year Literature Survey.” Dujardin, Lang, and Staunton, pp. 153-169.

Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine Parts One and Two, edited by Anthony Dawson. Metheun Drama, 1997.

Marx, Karl. Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. Penguin, 1973.

McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel: 1600-1740. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Phillips, Helen. An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales: Reading, Fiction, Context. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Wikipedia Contributors, “Literature.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Accessed 30 May 2018,

            Course Document 1: A Sample Reading Schedule

Tuesday January 19th

Intro to Course

Thursday January 21st

The Story of Caedmon fromBede’s Ecclesiastical History
The Dream of the Rood

Tuesday, January 26th

Beowulf Lines 1-884

Thursday, January 28th 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Tuesday, February 2nd 

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales General Prologue

Thursday, February 4th

Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale”

Tuesday, February 9th 

Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”

Thursday, February 11th

Selections from The Book of Margery Kempe

Tuesday,  February 16th

Thomas Wyatt, “The long love that in my thought doth harbor,” “Whoso list to hunt,” “Farewell, Love,” “I find no peace,” “My galley,” “Divers do use,” “What vaileth truth,” “Madam, withouten many words,” “They flee from me,” “The Lover Showeth How He is Forsaken of Such as He Sometime Enjoyed,” “My lute, awake!” “Forget not yet” “Blame not my lute,” “Stand whoso list,” “Who list his wealth and ease retain,” “Mine own John Poins”

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, “The soote season,” “Love, that doth reign and live within my thought,” “Alas! So all things now do hold their peace,” “Th’ Assyrians’ king, in peace with foul desire,” “So cruel prison how could betide.”


Thursday, February 18th

Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poetry (selections)
Astrophel and Stella: Sonnets 1, 6, 15, 16, 34, 45, 61, 87

  Tuesday, February 23rd

William Shakespeare, Sonnets 1, 18, 33, 55, 116, 130, 152

Thursday, February 25th

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene Cantos 1 and Canto 3

Tuesday, March 1st 

Test #1

Thursday March 3st

Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great Acts I-II

Tuesday March 8th

Tamburlaine the Great Acts III-IV

Thursday March 10th

Finish Tamburlaine the Great

Mary Wroth – Pamphilia to Amphilantus, Sonnets 1, 16, 25, 28, 39, 40, 64, 68, 74

Tuesday March 15th

Aemelia Lanyer: “The Description of Cookham”  B: 1319-1324

Ben Jonson, “To Penshurst” B: 1434-6

Thursday March 17th

John Donne, “The Flea,” “The Good-Morrow,” “Song (Go and catch a falling star),” “The Undertaking,” “The Sun Rising,” “The Indifferent,” “The Canonization,” “Air and Angels,” “Break of Day,” “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” “The Bait,” “The Apparition,” “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” “The Ecstasy,” “The Relic.”

Tuesday March 22 and Thursday March 24


Spring Break

Tuesday March 29th

Donne, Holy Sonnets 1410-15; “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,”  “A Hymn to God the Father.”

George Herbert, and “The Altar,” “Redemption,” “Jordan I,” and “The Collar” B: 1705-1720


Thursday March 31st

Katherine Phillips, “Friendship’s Mystery, To My Dearest Lucasia,” “To Mrs. M.A. at Parting,” “On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Phillips.”

Andrew Marvell, “The Coronet,” “To His Coy Mistress,” “A Dialogue Between The Soul and Body,” “The Definition of Love,” “The Mower Poems.”

Read “Of Wit” by Abraham Cowley, and two other poems of your choice by Abraham Cowley from this web-site

Skim: Samuel Johnson, from “Life of Cowley,” C: 2947-49, "Metaphysical Wit


Tuesday April 5th

John Milton, Paradise Lost Book I


Thursday April 7th

John Milton, Paradise Lost Book II

Tuesday April 12th

John Dryden: “Mac Flecknoe”

John Milton, Earl of Rochester, “The Disabled Debaucee,” “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” “Upon Nothing,” “A Satire against Reason and Mankind.”

Aphra Behn: “The Disappointment.”


Thursday April 14th

William Wycherley, The Country Wife (Note: I have students watch the 1977 BBC Production of The Country Wife between classes)


Tuesday April 19th

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Spectator:  2: “The Spectator’s Club,” 10: “The Aims of the Spectator,” 62: “Wit: True, False, and Mixed,” 411: “The Pleasures of the Imagination”

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, lines 1-336

Dryden, Essay on Dramatic Poetry, “Shakespeare and Ben Jonson Compared”

Tuesday April 26th 

Pope, The Rape of the Lock


Thursday April 28th 

Swift, Description of a City Shower

Swift, The Lady’s Dressing Room

Gullivers Travels Book 1, Chapters 1-5

Tuesday, May 3rd

Gullivers Travels Book 4

Thursday, May 5th

Haywood, “Fantomina: or, Love in a Maze.”


Course Document 2:

This is a post from my personal blog that I offer as a bonus homework writing assignment, with the following prompt:

In this post, I think through Game of Thrones using the categories of rhetorical and serious that we discussed through Chaucer and Gawain. Read over it to get the gist of my argument. In about 200 words,

  1. Challenge me on my reading of Game of Thrones, or expand it. I wrote this in 2013, so my argument here might be hopelessly dated. How do we see characters changing over the course of the series, perhaps moving from one category to another. Or how does the show challenge Lanham’s concepts by showing, perhaps, both identities happening at once?
  2. Think through another movie, television show, or book series. How do we see these categories at work there? Moving to a modern, non-fantastical setting (a show like Breaking Bad or House of Cards) obviously puts things in a different light, but how do we see characters’ behaviors conforming to or challenging Lanham’s concepts?


[1] Lanham is quoted in an excerpt from Stanley Fish titled “Rhetoric” in The Rhetorical Tradition. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes appear on p. 1616, reflected in Figure 1.  The quotes from Lanham originally appears in Chapter One of The Motives of Eloquence. The selection from Fish is Chapter 20 from Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies.

[2] Because so many teachers use the Norton Anthology of English Literature, I cite by volume and page number from the tenth edition, occasionally noting translators in the endnotes. For poems and plays, I have included also include line numbers or act and scene numbers. For texts not included in the Norton, I refer to specific editions.

[3] The Norton Anthology includes the translation by Simon Armitage.

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