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COURSE TITLE: Anxiety to Apotheosis: Literary Theory from Plato to Pater
CREDIT WEIGHT AND WEEKLY TIME DISTRIBUTION: credits 3(hrs lect 3 - hrs sem 0 - hrs lab 0)
COURSE DESCRIPTION: Are fictional stories harmful lies, or are they the embodiments of sacred inspiration? The debate over the nature and worth of imaginative literature has oscillated between the extremes of anxiety over its negative powers to euphoria over its apotheotic potential. In this course we will conduct a chronological study of some of the most influential statements in literary theory from the classical period to the conclusion of the 19th century. Theoretical approaches have become central to literary discussions in the 20th century, and they promise to maintain their dominant position into the new millennium. A sound understanding of contemporary theoretical practice is dependant upon an awareness of, and a familiarity with, the major historical discussions that inform it. This course will investigate the issues and assumptions that characterize the theory of the earlier periods, and in so doing, it will prepare students grapple with the theoretical concerns of our own era.

Prerequisites: ENGL 314.
  • Richter, David H., ed.  The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends.  Bedford: St. Martin’s, 3rd edition, 2007.
  • Shakespeare, William.  King Lear.
In Class Questions15%
Term Paper35%
Final Exam30%
COURSE OBJECTIVES: Of what value is imaginative literature?  Do texts produce meaning? Do authors? Do readers?  What role does historical context play in shaping the production and reception of a literary text?  Although we often associate questions of this sort with the schools of literary theory that have arisen in the academy since the 1960’s, discussions of this sort have occurred since the time of Plato and, perhaps, before.  In this course we will acquaint ourselves with some of these questions and with the answers that have been given to them before the contemporary era of theory.  As we read and talk about the foundational texts in English literary theory, we will search to discover the assumptions that underlie both the questions posed and the answers offered.

Our objectives for this course are twofold.  First, we will seek an appreciation of the issues that shape historical literary criticism and we will investigate to discover the degree to which these ideas have been shaped by, or are amenable to, the foundational assumptions of the Christian faith.  Are theory and faith mutually incompatible?  We will do our best to find out.  Next, we will work to establish a foundation for your study of contemporary literary theories by searching out the themes and issues that carry forward from these early texts into the discussions that have animated the academy in the current era.

We will approach the course material in chronological sections.  This will allow us to evaluate roughly sequential issues and authors in order to assess incremental development of ideas, and to identify important new thoughts and approaches.  Class discussion will form an essential component of the course.  In order to ensure that we make the most of our discussions, we will hold each other to a rigorous standard of preparation.  Reading must be completed in advance of class discussions; substantial credit will be assigned for successful completion of required readings.  (See grade allocations listed below.)
  • Introduction and Syllabus Distribution
  • Roundtable Discussion and intro to King Lear
  • Plato
  • Aristotle Poetics
  • Longinus On the Sublime
  • Dante Alighieri from The Letter to Can Grande della Scalla
  • Christine de Pisan from La Querelle de la Rose
  • Sir Phillip Sidney An Apology for Poetry
  • Aphra Behn
  • Alexander Pope  An Essay on Criticism
  • Samuel Johnson  Preface to Shakespeare
  • Immanuel Kant  from Critique . . . 
  • Germaine de Stael
  • William Wordsworth Preface to Lyrical . . .
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Bio . . . 
  • John Keats
  • Movie: King Lear
  • Shelley A Defense
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson   The Poet
  • Karl Marx from The German Ideology
  • Matthew Arnold The Study of Poetry
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Henry James  The Art of Fiction
  • Oscar Wilde The Decay of Lying

Required texts, assignments, and grade distributions may vary from one offering of this course to the next. Please consult the course instructor for up to date details.

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