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How to be British around 1815: Readings in William Wordsworth and Walter Scott

Professor Matthew Rowlinson
Fall Half Course.

Literary culture in the century of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson was strongly anchored in the English capital of London; one trait of what we now call the Romantic movement was a decentering of literary production, publishing, and cultural authority. To be a reader of English-language poetry or fiction in the second decade of the nineteenth century, whatever one’s location, was to encounter in ones’ “own” language speakers and fashions of life marked out as alien. The effect was not only to introduce regions or nations outside the centre into literary representation; it was to produce an idea of literature as necessarily connected to the cultural margins.  This idea is clearest in Wordsworth’s claim that English poetry should be written in the language of Cumbrian freeholders; it is also implicit in Scott’s idea of Britain as a legal and cultural federation of distinct nations and peoples, between whom the job of framing and mediating relations belongs to literature.

The geographically differentiated identities represented by Wordsworth and Scott stand in different relations to history and memory. Relations to place in both writers are also relations to the past, and the forms of those relation differs depending on whether one inhabits a landscape as, for instance, a property owner, a laborer, or a tourist. In this course we will study the emergence in the work of these two writers of a Britain newly defined by internal cultural difference und uneven historical development. Though Canadian literature will not form part of our study, the traits of Wordsworth and Scott’s work that will concern us are those that made them the two most important influences on the nascent literature of English Canada in the nineteenth century.

Works studied will include selections from the poetry and prose of Wordsworth and Scott.  Most of the Wordsworth poems to be studied will be short, though we will cover the narrative poem “The Ruined Cottage.” Of Scott we will cover one or two narrative poems such as “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” and “Marmion,” and two novels, probably The Heart of Midlothian and Old Mortality. Both Wordsworth and Scott have been the subject of important works of criticism and cultural history, and we will cover a selection of these.

View the syllabus here: English 9082A.

Department of English - The University of Western Ontario
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