Feder, "Teaching early Romantic literature with a concluding unit on contemporary experimental poetry and neo-Gothic literature"

"Early Romantic Literature"

Rachel Feder
Rutgers University


rachel.feder [at] rutgers.edu



This course offers an introduction to poetry and fiction written in England at the turn of the nineteenth century.  We will focus on a variety of Romantic literary experiments in form, genre, and community representation.  We will also focus on literary responses to Romantic-period cultural changes and social realities.  Our final unit will consider the Romantic inheritance in contemporary experimental poetry and neo-Gothic literature.


Course participants will be evaluated based on consistent preparedness for class and contributions to class discussion, two short essays in response to specific essay prompts, a creative paper with a critical coda, and a final essay test.

The first short essay will ask for a thesis-driven close reading of a poem read for class.

The second short essay will ask for a thesis-driven critical analysis that brings two Romantic-period texts (one fiction, one poetry) into conversation with one another.

The creative paper with a critical coda will consist of 1) a poem written in imitation of one of the Romantic poets read for class, and 2) a close reading of the student's own poem that explains why this poem is an effective and informative imitation.

The final essay test will ask course participants to demonstrate an understanding of early Romantic literature by bringing course texts to bear on mainstream literary texts from our own literary-historical moment.


Course participants will gain: a historically informed understanding of early Romantic poetry and the Romantic-period gothic novel; a sense of the major literary forms of early British Romanticism; familiarity with major and minor figures from the early British Romantic period, including key women writers; and the ability to recognize the inheritance of early Romantic literary experimentation in contemporary literature. Additionally, students will practice literary-critical argumentation in class and in writing assignments.


1/22 Introduction: romantic & unromantic Romanticism.

William Wordsworth, The Solitary Reaper

Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West

1/24 The spirit of the age?

Mary Wollstonecraft, excerpt from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Richard Price, excerpt from A Discourse on the Love of Our Country

Edmund Burke, excerpt from Reflections on the Revolution in France

Mary Wollstonecraft, excerpt from A Vindication of the Rights of Men

Thomas Paine, excerpt from Rights of Man

Edmund Burke, excerpt from A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

I. Early Romantic Poetry

WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827)

1/29 Visuality, vision, & radical myth: The Book of Urizen.

1/31 The good, the bad, & the ugly: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

2/5 Poetry & social reality: Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796)

2/7 Dialect & identity: A Red, Red Rose; Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes; Comin thro' the Rye; For a' That and a' That; Highland Mary; Scots Wha Hae; Tam O'Shanter; Green Grow the Rashes.


2/12 Perspective & imagination: The Eolian Harp; This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison; Kubla Khan, Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment; Frost at Midnight; Dejection: An Ode.

2/14 Perspective & imagination continued.

2/19 Poetry as philosophy: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; excerpts from Coleridge's notebooks.

2/21 No class. Due: Essay #1


2/26 Experiments in form, experiments in representation: Lyrical Ballads (Wordsworth & Coleridge).

2/28 Encounter and witness: Lyrical Ballads continued; She dwelt among the untrodden ways; The Ruined Cottage.

3/5 The growth of a mind, the growth of a poem: the two-book Prelude of 1799.

3/7 Ideas of Romanticism: Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood; Resolution and Independence; I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.


3/12 Poetry, social ties, and daily life: To my Niece Dorothy, a sleepless Baby; An address to a Child in a high wind; The Mother's Return; Grasmere—A Fragment; Floating Island at Hawkshead, An Incident in the Schemes of Nature; excerpts from The Grasmere Journals.

JOHN CLARE (1793-1864)

3/14 Unromantic naturalism: Nutting; The Sky Lark; The Sky Lark Leaving Her Nest; [The Mouse's Nest]; [Sheep in Winter].

3/19 No class, Spring Recess.

3/21 No class, Spring Recess.

3/26 Paper presentations. Due: Creative Paper with a Critical Coda.

II. The Gothic Novel

3/28 Inventing the mystery novel: William Godwin, Caleb Williams.

4/2 Gothic genres: excerpts from Matthew Lewis, The Monk; Anna Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld) and John Aikin, On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror, with Sir Bertrand, a Fragment; excerpts from William Beckford, Vathek.

4/4 Gothic mystery: Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolfo.

4/9 Gothic parody: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey.

4/11 The Gothic novel, continued. Due: Essay #2

III. Our Neo-Romantic Experiments

4/16 Dorothea Tanning, Coming to That and Michelle Taransky, Sorry Was In The Woods.

4/18 Recent publications in experimental poetry I (journals, collections and chapbooks) (Featuring the current incarnations of InDigest, DIAGRAM, & The Page, & chapbooks from H_NGM_N, Organic Weapon Arts, & Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs)

4/23 Recent publications in experimental poetry II (poetry packet)(Featuring selections from new and forthcoming titles from Omnidawn, Noctuary Press, Futurepoem, etc.)

4/25 Neil Gaiman, Coraline.

4/30 Roundtable: examples of the neo-Gothic (to be selected by course participants).

5/2 In-class essay test.

Creative Paper with a Critical Coda

The purpose of this assignment is to demonstrate in-depth knowledge the writings of a major early Romantic poet through imitation and analysis.

  • Choose a Romantic poet who is particularly interesting to you—William Blake, Robert Burns, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, or John Clare—and write a poem in imitation of this poet. This portion of the assignment will be graded based on demonstrated knowledge of the poet you choose, not based on your poetic talent (though I know we have some poets in the class, you do not need to be a poet to complete this assignment effectively).
  • Write a critical coda (3-5 pages or 750-1,250 words) reflecting on your poetic choices and explaining why yours is an effective imitation. Possible starting questions for this portion of the assignment include: What makes your poem representative of the poet you have chosen? What specific moments in your poem (diction, syntax, rhyme, line break, etc.) relate to specific moments in poems read for class? How have you interpreted the work of this poet? What have you learned about this poet via your interpretation? In other words, close-read your own poem in the context of class discussion in order to demonstrate a detailed textual and historical understanding of the tensions, details, themes, questions, problems, etc. to be found in the work of the poet you have chosen. Your critical coda should be clearly organized and detail-oriented, but does not necessarily need an argument as such. (The implied argument should be something like .) I recommend that you refer to specific poems read for class in making your case.
  • You may choose to interpret this assignment creatively. Instead of a “perfect imitation” of a Wordsworth poem (for example), you may choose to respond to the poet you choose in some other way—updating your poem to address the present day, reinterpreting or responding to a specific poem read for class, or attempting a satirical pastiche. This is fine—even admirable—as long as you justify your choices in the critical coda.

This paper will be due in hard copy at the beginning of class on 3/26. Please be prepared to share your poem with the class, and to provide a brief summary of your critical coda.

Final Exam: In-Class Essay Test

2 May 2013

Attached you will find three texts representing our current literary-historical moment. Texts 1 and 2 are poems from the May 2013 issue of Poetry magazine. Text 3 is an excerpt from this week's #1 fiction bestseller.

Select one of these contemporary texts. , describe the various ways in which the text you have chosen responds to Romantic and/or Gothic literature.

If you choose to write about a poem, answer the following question: how is the poem neo-Romantic, anti-Romantic, and/or in conversation with early Romantic poetry?

If you choose to write about the bestseller, answer the following question: how is this excerpt Gothic, neo-Gothic, anti-Gothic, and/or in conversation with fiction from the turn of the nineteenth century?

You may, of course, discuss Romantic poems in relation to Text 3, or Gothic fiction in relation to Texts 1 and 2, but this is not required.

This exam is open-book. You will have one hour to complete this exam.

1. The Storm-struck Tree

By Jessica Greenbaum

First published in Poetry magazine, May 2013

As the storm-struck oak leaned closer to the house —
The remaining six-story half of the tree listing toward the glass box
Of? the kitchen like someone in the first tilt of stumbling?—
The other half crashed into the neighbors' yards, a massive
Diagonal for which we had no visual cue save for
An antler dropped by a constellation?—
As the ragged half ??leaned nearer, the second storm of cloying snow
Began pulling on the shocked, still-looming splitting, and its branches dragged
Lower like ripped hems it was tripping over
Until they rustled on the roof under which I
Quickly made dinner, each noise a threat from a body under which we so recently
Said, Thank goodness for our tree, how it has accompanied us all these years,
Thank goodness for its recitation of the seasons out our windows and over
The little lot of our yard, thank goodness for the birdsong and squirrel games
Which keep us from living alone, and for its proffered shade, the crack of the bat
Resounding through September when its dime-sized acorns
Land on the tin awning next door. Have
Mercy on us, you, the massively beautiful, now ravaged and charged
With destruction.
We did speak like that. As if from a book of psalms
Because it took up the sky

2. The Fury That Breaks

By Michelle Boisseau

First published in Poetry magazine, May 2013

After César Vallejo

The fury that breaks a grown-up into kids,
a kid into scattered birds
and a bird into limp eggs,
the fury of the poor
takes one part oil to two parts vinegar.
The fury that breaks a tree into leaves,
a leaf into deranged flowers
and a flower into wilting telescopes,
the fury of the poor
gushes two rivers against a hundred seas.
The fury that breaks the true into doubts,
doubt into three matching arches
and the arch into instant tombs,
the fury of the poor
draws a sharpening stone against two knives.
The fury that breaks the soul into bodies,
the body into warped organs,
and the organ into eight doctrines,
the fury of the poor
burns with one fire in two thousand craters.

3. Excerpt, current New York Times #1 Bestseller Whisky Beach by Nora Roberts (Putnam, 2013). Chapter One, pages 1-2.

Through the chilly curtain of sleet, in the intermittent wash of the great light on the jutting cliff to the south, the massive silhouette of Bluff House loomed over Whiskey Beach. It faced the cold, turbulent Atlantic like a challenge.

I will last as long as you.

Standing three sturdy and indulgent stories above the rough and rugged coast, it watched the roll and slap of waves through the dark eyes of windows, as it had—in one incarnation or another—for more than three centuries.

The little stone cottage now housing tools and garden supplies spoke to its humble beginnings, to those who'd braved the fierce and fickle Atlantic to forge a life on the stony ground of a new world. Dwarfing those beginnings, the spread and rise of golden sand walls and curving gables, the generous terraces of weathered local stone sang to its heyday.

It survived storm, neglect, careless indulgence, dubious taste, the booms and the busts, scandal and righteousness.

Within its walls, generations of Landons had lived and died, celebrated and mourned, schemed, thrived, triumphed and languished.

It had shone as bright as the great light that swept the water off Massachusetts' rocky and glorious north shore. And it had huddled, shuttered in the dark.

It had stood long, so long now it simply was Bluff House, reigning above the sea, the sand, the village of Whiskey Beach.

For Eli Landon it was the only place left to go.



Notes on the course after its iteration in Spring 2013:

Inclusion of the final unit on contemporary experimental poetry and neo-Gothic literature at the end of the semester accomplishes the following goals:

• to demonstrate the continuing relevance of early Romantic literature to contemporary art and culture

• to reinforce student learning by asking students to apply what they have learned about Romantic and Gothic literature to a new set of literary texts

• to encourage students to understand the Romantic period as a crucial moment in the

history of literary experiment and innovation

• to motivate student excellence during the challenging final weeks of the semester by introducing exciting new texts and authors.

Throughout this final unit, students shift their perspectives—rather than read early Romantic literature through the lens of their twenty-first century lives, they use Romantic literature as a lens through which to view their own literary-historical moment. In so doing, students take ownership of their knowledge of early Romantic literature and apply this knowledge in new and creative ways.

Additionally, the creative paper with a critical coda (always a popular assignment) allows students to demonstrate their understanding of Romantic poetry by creating an original work. This assignment also encourages students to think about the world around them through the lens of Romantic poetry—they “take on” the identity of the Romantic poet, at least for a few pages.