Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said that prose was “words in their best order” but that poetry was “the best words in their best order”. This course looks at some of the most influential British poets from the last 1300 years. Students examine the origins of the poetic form and the traditions of oral poetry, which began in the eighth century with Beowulf; the influence of Petrarch on the sonnets of Donne and Shakespeare; the Metaphysical and Romantic poets; the confessional style of Larkin and Duffy, and the primitive energy behind the verse of Hughes and Plath. Attention is paid to the development of form and style and the poets’ treatment of language, themes and ideas. We will be examining the concept of poetry, the role of the poet and the evolution of the poetic form over time, stopping off at major landmarks along the way. Skills of close textual analysis and critical interpretation will be developed throughout the course.
- Introduction: The origins of English poetry, from Beowulf to the Renaissance.
- Donne and Marvell: Rhetoric and conceit from the masters of metaphysical manipulation
- Swift and Pope: Satire and Subversion in the Restoration
- Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The early Romantics.
- Byron, Shelley and Keats: The later Romantics.
- War poetry: representations of World War One from the trench poets.
- Hughes and Heaney: Beauty in the violence and the un-romantic tradition.
- Plath and Duffy: Women in poetry – talking back
- Larkin and Betjeman: Post-war Britain and the changing face of society.
For each unit, students will read a selection of material from the poets listed for discussion and analysis in class. Students may study other poets if they wish; this should be discussed with the tutor.
Course Aims, Objectives and Outcomes
There is no single or common aim, objective or outcome in the study of poetry. The course
aims to provide an overview of the significant points in the development of English poetry, and a framework by which key texts may be analysed. The course is primarily based on close textual analysis, understanding of contextual and, in places, biographical material. Individual projects may be selected by the student and need not be confined to a single or conventional academic approach.
The following is a guide to the type of questions which might be chosen for some of the poets listed above:
- How far does your reading of the poems lead you to agree that ‘both indignation and compassion lie at the heart of Blake’s poetry’?
- Through a detailed comparison of Ode to a Nightingale with Ode on Melancholy, write about Keats’ presentation of the themes of beauty and death. You may also refer to other poems and/or his letters where appropriate.
- “There is no sophistry in my body:/ My manners are tearing off heads –‘’ (Hawk Roosting) Discuss the ways in which Hughes presents the violence of the natural world in three poems of your choice.
- Consider the ways in which Duffy creates a sense of menace in the poems Disgrace and Stuffed. In your answer, you should pay particular attention to language and imagery.
Students will be awarded a final grade based on classroom contribution and attendance, satisfactory completion of reading and research-based homework, and on the submission of at least two extended written papers on topics of their choice. Critical material may be incorporated into essays by those students who wish.
Written work is assessed on the understanding that there is no right or wrong answer in literature, but each point made should be well-substantiated with textual evidence. Essays which score highly will be those which include a coherent and logical argument, detailed textual analysis and an understanding of the conventions of poetic form and structure.
This class is normally delivered over one term, with 90 teaching contact hours or equivalent in the Michaelmas term, and 60 teaching contact hours for Hilary and Trinity terms. For students requesting credit, we recommend the transfer of three college credits for Michaelmas and two college credits for Hilary and Trinity, on successful completion of the class.
Recommended Introductory Reading and Textbooks
The list below is for guidance and to supply some ideas for preliminary reading. We recommend that you do not purchase the books on this list before arrival and certainly not all of them; most should be available from a good library. Your tutor will recommend the most appropriate books for purchase at the first class of term.
Primary texts may be read in any edition, but some useful anthologies of poetry include:
The Oxford Book of English Verse – Christopher Ricks (OUP: 1999)
Great Modern Poets: The Best Poetry Of Our Times – Michael Schmidt (Quercus: 2006)
Useful reference books include:
Mastering Poetry – Sara Thorne (Palgrave Macmillan: 2006)
An Introduction to English Poetry – James Fenton (Penguin: 2003)
If you are unable to obtain books locally, they may be ordered from