Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Overview

This seminar offers a course of readings in lyric poetry. It aims to enhance the student’s capacity to understand the nature of poetic language and the enjoyment of poetic texts by treating poems as messages to be deciphered.

Poetry departs from the apparently straightforward sentences of narrative, exposition and argument–the stuff of everyday writing and conversation–in several ways, and one of these, as everyone knows, is in its use of metaphors, comparisons and other figures of speech, the nature of whose contribution to the meaning of what is said is often not immediately clear. But metaphors and other figures of speech are not the exclusive property of poetry; neither is it true, as Aristotle said, that command of metaphor is a mark of genius. On the contrary, figurative language is used effortlessly in everyday life by ordinary people and requires no special talent for its deployment. It is not the presence of metaphor and other figures of speech that make for the apparent difficulty of poetry, but the way in which these figures are used. The seminar will briefly touch upon the history of theories of figurative language since Aristotle and it will attend to the development of those theories during the last thirty years, noting the manner in which they tended to consider figures of speech distinct from normative or literal expression, and it will devote particular attention to the rise of theories that quarrel with this distinction. In particular, it will attend to recent theories in both literary studies and also in cognitive linguistics, which take metaphor to be an inevitable process of human thought and which regard linguistic communities as founded on the existence of very generalized metaphoric structures–master-metaphors, so to speak, such as Life is a Journey or The Mind is a Container—which enable people to specify their experiences and which underlie the substance of particular sentences. These theories adopt the view that metaphor and other aspects of figuration constitute the conceptual systems that we live by, and that poetry utilizes, energizes, alters, and re-invents the figures of speech employed by non-poetic language. Poetry, therefore, differs from straightforward or literal exposition and argument in the way that it elaborates the metaphors that we live by, not by virtue of the fact that it utilizes figures of speech.

The seminar also aims to communicate a rough sense of the history of English-speaking poetry since the early modern period. To this end, we will inquire into the systems of metaphor of four groups of authors: (1) poets of the renaissance and seventeenth century, including Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell and Milton; (2) poets of the Romantic period, including works by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats; (3) poets of the early twentieth-century, including Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost; and (4) subsequent poets, including Elizabeth Bishop and Phillip Larkin. Some attention will be paid as well to the use of metaphor in science.

Course Format

The subject meets twice a week for two one-and-a-half sessions. Each session begins with a lecture of varying length, but changes over early into general discussion. Active participation in discussion is essential to the life of the class and the force and cogency of students’ remarks will have a marked influence on grades. Prose readings will total approximately twenty pages a week, sometimes more, sometimes less; the remainder will consist of readings in English and American lyric poetry, covering the period from the renaissance through the twentieth century. Much of the grade will also depend upon the quality of the three written assignments required by the course, and spaced fairly evenly over the term: the papers will total twenty pages in entirety, two papers running to at least six pages each and a final paper running to at least eight pages. The papers will each deal with some aspect of the readings and discussion; topics may be invented by the students but an extensive list of suggested topics will be circulated two weeks in advance of each paper’s due date for those students who require it. The first of these papers will be rewritten upon its return and resubmitted in a form complaint with corrections made by the instruction on the pages of the first version. The second paper may be treated in the same way, depending upon the instructor’s judgment. The subject will also offer students opportunity for oral expression by reason of (a) its discussion format and (b) a regular assignment delegated to one student each week of a ten-minute presentation of materials conducive to the discussion of a given reading, following the model of such presentations offered by the instructor at the outset of the term. The maximum number of students per section of this subject is 12. There will be no final examination.

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

assignment Written Assignments