All summer I have been working on a Norton Anthology-inspired reading list for my British Literature I students. More than any other class, I have longed to teach this one. I cannot believe the time has come.
Nor can I believe how difficult it is to choose wisely. It would be so easy to make this Early British Literature That I Love Most. But it can't be that. My job is to give them a good grounding in British liteature from the earliest writings to the icky 18th century, when satire and incredibly boring tracts abounded. We can't just read Beowulf and lyrics and loads of sonnets. We have to read some drama too. It's in the approved syllabus. We can't just skip Pope or DRYden. We can't skip "The Faerie Queene." Except that we are going to.
I'm teaching British Literature mainly to students getting an associate's degree in liberal arts. They just need a literature class. Of any kind. Most of them probably chose mine based on timing rather than interest. (Or, in the case of at least two of them, because I begged and pleaded and promised it would be "like studying metal," which was not a lie). So, what do I give them (poor as I am)?
Actually, that little poem excerpt, which we learned as children from a book of Christmas poetry, does apply:
What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring him a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man,
I would do my part.
Yet what can I give him?
Give him my heart.
-- Christina Rossetti
I AM poor, in the grand scheme of things: I am a young scholar, in the world of scholars. I am not a great poet or a great writer. I went to The University of Southern Mississippi, not Harvard. And of course, although one of my grandmothers' families came from England, I am not British. I am Creek. So, what can I give them, my students? I can give them my heart, which since infancy has been filled by my father with British literature. I must trust that the heart will inform the training, but also that the love will not overshadow the practicalities...at least, not too often.
Sometimes, like when one is convincing 19-year-olds to love Christopher Smart, it is perhaps best to let it go. Then, they need "Listen to this FANTASTIC cat poem that I LOVE!!" Not, "Note the interesting structure of Smart's line and meter."
But all this has been but a means of avoiding my reading list, which I must now turn into a schedule of events. And which must not turn into my opening the anthology to something like Spencer's sonnets because if that happens, the love will take me over again, and I will start on a crazy poem about my love of British literature...
For I will consider British literature.
For it is my life and my salvation.
For it is my favorite thing in the whole wide world.
For I always hear it in my father's voice.
For when the real world does not correspond, I am disappointed.
For there is so much of it.
For it can creep.