English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3
2. Beowulf 1
3. Beowulf 2
4. Middle Ages
6. Sir Gawain
9. Wife of Bath
11. Biblical Drama
12. Play of Mankind
14. Thomas More
15. Philip Sidney
16. Print Culture
17. Walter Raleigh
18. Twelfth Night 1
19. Twelfth Night 2
20. Civil War
22. Aphra Behn
23. Reading Papers
25. Rape of the Lock
27. New God
*** 1. CLASSICAL BRITAIN ***
"Well worth conquering!" -- Tacitus
ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON
The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment. Both of these are to be submitted by online students on the interactive Angel course site at SUNY Learning Network.
Write in your journal for an hour (or more if you have time).
Summarize your readings from Lesson 1:
Ancient Britain Source
Dr. G's NOTES AND COMMENTARY
In the beginning . . . what?
Our book is divided in three parts, like Caesar's Gaul. We have fat volumes for the middle ages (cir. 600-1485), the early modern period (1485 -1660), and the enlightenment (1660-1790 CE). But why would anybody start with the "Middle Ages"? Where is the volume for the "Beginning Ages"? Where are the songs of the Bronze Age or the Iron Age? Where are the classics?
There are no classics! There is nothing solely composed by any British writer prior to the letters of St. Patrick (cir. 430's CE) and nothing in Great Britain until well after 597 CE, when missionaries from Pope Gregory set up at Canterbury and began describing Odin and Thor as God the Father and Son.
Literature existed in ancient Britain, but little is known about it. In Caesar's time (first century BCE), learned Druids wrote in Greek, or they used Greek letters to represent their Celtic language and Brythonic language, but all of this writing is "lost." Natives of Britain wrote extensively in Latin during the period of rule by the Roman Empire (43 CE to 410 CE), but much of this writing may have been Arian, Pelagian or otherwise heretical from the perspective of the later Church of Rome. In any case no ancient Latin literature from British writers survives today, apart from a rubble of brief and broken inscriptions and a few fragments of letters.
To the victors belong the texts. The accounts of ancient Britain that remain today were written by Roman enemies of the Brits. Both Julius Caesar (cir. 55 BCE) and the historian Tacitus (cir. 98 CE) described what they saw on military campaigns against British tribes, and Cassius Dio (cir. 229 CE), an imperial propagandist and consul, reported a bloody uprising against the emperor Nero by Queen Boudicca, the first British heroine of record.
So our story begins in these Latin sources,
on the natives may be obtuse or even malicious. Nonetheless their
observations and ironies provide deep perspective on our subject.
are brave and independent-minded or, as he puts it, superstitious and
disorganized. How will such rascal barbarians ever manage
greater than Rome's, ruling one-fourth of earth's land area and most
of the seven seas . . .
What is British Literature? Damrosch and his co-editors define it as literature from the British Isles (xxi-xxii). This geographical region, which includes the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, is a culturally and linguistically diverse area, where people even today variously speak of themselves as Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Norse, Indian, &c. Because so many do NOT call themselves "English," and because historically so many did NOT write in the English language, Damrosch and company do NOT call their book "English Literature." Their textbook is multi-cultural, including works in translation that originally were composed in Latin, Irish, French, Welsh and Cornish as well as diverse varieties of English.
What was British Literature? The multicultural approach now rules in Anglo-American education, but it is NOT the traditional approach, and one may ask whether it is the best approach. In the days of the British Empire, British Literature courses included almost exclusively texts composed in English. Indeed, the course normally was called "English Literature." This narrow definition excluded lots of fascinating non-English literature, but it had clear purpose.
Before the fall of the British Empire, teaching the Great Books of the English language was thought to maintain the language itself, and to promote common understanding among educated English speakers globally. Think of this traditional canon of English literature as a proto-type for the world wide web, a network built with standard English books rather than electronic components. It enabled the Aussie, the Yank, the Scot, the Indian, the Kenyan and the Queen to communicate in writing on almost any civil subject because all of them in school had learned to read Hamlet, Great Expectations, The Idylls of the King and other golden oldies composed in British English.
What will British Literature become in the future? Electronic networks are stronger than book networks, while the power is on, but they do not assure the future survival of worldwide English. When the United Kingdom and the United States decline in political and economic power, worldwide "standard English" almost certainly will be overtaken in influence by variant forms of English, and eventually it will die, leaving a variety of local languages in its place. This was the fate of Latin, after the unexpected fall of the Roman Empire, when the language of the Romans quickly dissolved into Italian, Spanish, French and other barbarous romance languages, despite efforts by the Roman church to perpetuate the pure language of Caesar and Tacitus.
If Chinese comes to the forefront of world languages, courses in Chinese literature will be taught in schools worldwide, and British Literature may become a subject studied mainly by historians. If an English church keeps reading its favorite old books in ritual fashion, inspiring the faithful to sustain the English language in its pure imperial form, will it matter? In a dark age of that kind, how many people will be able to read Dickens or Darwin or The Wealth of Nations? Will it matter if nobody reads, or can read, the old standards anymore?
Shakespeare in some sense may survive in Chinese translation, but he lied when he
claimed that his poetry would make his girlfriends immortal. As the
British Empire slowly recedes into the past,
and even the present
queen too, will be forgotten with
Queen Boudicca, even in Britain, and some
sorry semester thereafter the last
remnants of our great subject will have been
sucked into the black hole of complete antiquarian misunderstanding . . .
Why yes, she replied, if you have the biggest ships!
English became the leading language in the British Isles by the late Middle Ages, and then it spread through the world with Drake, Raleigh, Cook and other English explorers of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.
So why study British Literature? Students necessarily must answer this question for themselves. Most will discover that this study improves their reading, writing and general language skills. Many will gain not only more understanding of the past but also deeper insight into the present, for perspective comes from knowledge of other times and places. A few may find a calling to the cause of Anglo-American culture which is noble in so many respects. I wish all of these outcomes for you.
In any case, enjoy these readings.
Early Britain is uniquely
a foreign world accessible by a largely familiar language.
May your visit be memorable!
Time changes everything. Left: Boudicca today in London, the Roman city she burned to the ground, whose people she slaughtered, which now celebrates her as a heroic spirit of liberty!
Prehistoric Britain from Wikipedia.
The Megalithic Portal (prehistoric megaliths in the UK and elsewhere) .
Londinium Today from the Museum of London.
Roman Britain from Wikipedia.
Works of Julius Caesar at The Internet Classics Library from MIT
Celtic tribes (mentioned by Caesar)
Iron Age Tribes in Britain from Wikipedia.
Copyright 2008-2012 by Gary Homer Gutchess