The first-year English course
The first-year English course at Oxford is mostly divided between Early Medieval English Literature and the literatures of the Victorian period and of the 20th and 21st centuries. Early Medieval English is taught throughout all three terms; the period 1830–1910 is taught in the first term (Michaelmas) and the modern period in the second term (Hilary). The teaching of these subjects is done by a mixture of tutorials and classes here in Balliol; and there is a complementary programme of lectures and seminars offered by the University English Faculty, and you are encouraged to take full advantage of that. You will also be taking an introductory course (‘Paper 1’) which is taught by a series of compulsory Faculty lectures as well as by classes and tutorials in College.
You will be assessed on all this work by a number of examinations, called Prelims, which you will sit at the end of the third term (Trinity), as well as by a Portfolio for Paper 1 submitted during Trinity. This is a Pass/Fail examination, with the possibility of Distinction. Your performance in Prelims does not count towards your final degree, which is entirely based on your performance in exams and coursework during your third year. You will also be set some College examinations (Collections) at the beginning of Hilary and Trinity Terms: these do not count towards your degree either, but are just a way for your tutors to keep an eye on your progress.
Preparing for your course
You have a busy year ahead of you, and it will simply not be possible to read large amounts during term-time: it is very important that you are properly prepared for the course when you come up to Oxford. This page suggests the directions that your preliminary reading might most usefully take. Remember that cheap second-hand books can often be purchased online at abebooks.co.uk and other on-line booksellers.
If you are set to study English and Modern Languages or History and English, you will be sitting two examinations in English (single honours students sit four). Paper 1 – the introduction to language and literature – is compulsory; the other is for you to choose: either Victorian literature or twentieth century literature or Early Medieval English literature. Students tend to choose either Early Medieval or Modern as the timetabling makes it rather challenging to fit in Victorian literature; but talk to us if you want to explore that possibility. You should aim to read a generous selection of the texts listed below as you need to make an informed decision about which of these papers to sit in Prelims. Joint schools students are warmly welcome to attend classes on the period they are not going to offer in Prelims.
If you would like any further guidance about what to read or which editions to use, please feel free to contact us.
Introduction to English Language and Literature
This paper comes in two parts: 1A (which you will study in Hilary term) is about language and 1B (which you will study first, in Michaelmas) is about approaches to the study of literature—a sort of ‘literary theory’ paper, but we will be approaching it in a practical way with close readings and critical appreciations of text as well as sampling some of the leading critical voices. There is no particular preparation required for this paper: I shall distribute texts for our classes once you are here. If you have time on your hands, however, you could look at Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) which would introduce you to some of the major questions.
The English Faculty Library’s Guide to Prelims 1 contains direct links to a range of online and bibliographic tools. The College, Faculty, and University libraries offer access to many useful resources that are too expensive to warrant individual purchase: you can work with them once you arrive.
Advance reading for paper 1A in the second term will be given over the winter vacation. To get a head start, over the summer it is an excellent idea to read an introductory text such as The Stories of English by David Crystal (you may be able to borrow this from your local public library).
Early Medieval Literature 650‑1350 (Old and Early Middle English)
Prelims paper 2 introduces the literature, language, and cultural history of early medieval England. The period 650‑1350 spans the conversion of the migrant Anglo-Saxons through to the turbulent reign of Edward III. The focus is on literature in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, and Early Middle English and its development after the Norman Conquest of 1066.
You will work on this paper in both the first and second terms, before being assessed by examination in the third term. In the first term, you will have language classes and translation assignments to help you get to grips with texts in the original language. In the second term, language work will continue and you will also write essays. The exam is split into two parts: a commentary, and then two essays.
There is an extraordinarily rich body of literature in Old English, including texts in a variety of genres such as epic, lament, chronicle, riddle, dream vision, hagiography, and homily, while Early Middle English sees the flourishing of debate poetry, lyric, and romance.
To get a feel for the literature of this period, aim to read a selection of Old and Early Middle English texts in translation before you come to Oxford. Asterisks (*) designate essential reading. Reading widely will help you prepare for the essay section of the exam.
- Seamus Heaney, Beowulf (London: Faber & Faber, 1999). This creative translation is a beautiful introduction to Beowulf, a key text for this paper. It’s a great place to start.
- Elaine Treharne, ed. and trans. Old and Middle English c.890‑c.1400: An Anthology, 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell 2010). It is essential to own a copy of this anthology; dip in and read widely! Begin with the ‘Introduction’, and read whatever most appeals to you. I suggest focussing on working through a selection of the texts in the first 225 or so pages.
- Roy Liuzza, ed. and trans. Old English Poetry: An Anthology (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2014)
Commentary and language
In the exam, you will be asked to demonstrate knowledge of either Old English or Early Middle English by discussing the language and style of an extract. This exercise is known as the ‘commentary’. At Balliol, the focus will be on Old English, and the ‘set texts’ we will translate and study in preparation for the commentary section of the exam are: The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer, an extract from Beowulf (‘Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’), and The Battle of Maldon.
Over the summer, begin to familiarise yourself with Old English by reading a guide to the language.
- For a fun introduction: Hana Videen, The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English (London: Profile Books, 2021)
Then, I recommend choosing one of the following:
- Peter Baker, Introduction to Old English, 3rd edn (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). See also Baker’s online resources, to accompany the book http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net
- Mark Atherton, Complete Old English: Teach Yourself (London: Hachette, 2012)
Familiarity with the cultural and historical background to the texts we’ll be studying together will really help you to understand important themes and motifs; the following are highly readable and great places to start:
- Browse this wonderful blog about the medieval seasons and the religious year, which often features local Oxford detail, by Eleanor Parker: https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/
- See also Eleanor Parker, Winters in the World: A Journey Through The Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion, 2022)
- Amy Jeffs offers creative adaptations of stories from this period in Wild: Tales From Early Medieval Britain (London: riverrun/Quercus, 2022)
- Miri Rubin, The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2014)
- Hugh Magennis, ed. The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2011)
- Clare A. Lees , ed. The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), 475–498
To prepare for this paper, I warmly encourage you to read widely over the summer before term begins. Just to recap, the two essential texts are: Treharne’s Anthology, and Heaney’s Beowulf.. Second-hand copies of these, and many of the other texts on this list, can be found on https://abebooks.co.uk or https://www.bookfinder.com or similar. At the time of writing it costs about £10–15 to equip yourself with second-hand copies of the two recommended texts. If you have any questions at all about this paper, or difficulties getting hold of any these texts, please get in touch with me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org Happy reading!
Victorian and Modern Literature
These papers require a lot of reading and you should aim to read many of the major texts before coming to Oxford. Take notes as you read, focusing on language, style and form, to aid your essay-writing during term. For each of the period papers you should expect to study (and write an essay on) about four authors or subjects (such as a genre – ‘elegy’ or ‘nonsense poetry’ – or a literary grouping – ‘Pre-Raphaelite poetry’ or ‘Poetry of the 1930s’). There is a small number of major authors that I would like everyone to know so we have those texts in common: I have marked them in the list ‡. We like to give our students the opportunity to write about what enthuses them: we do not aim to be prescriptive, but advice and more specific guidance about reading is always on hand.
We are beginning this half of the course with writers of the last two centuries, but it is an excellent idea to have some sense of the larger shape of the history of literature in English, and you could have no better introduction to the poetry than Christopher Ricks’s Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press), which ranges from medieval lyrics to the end of the twentieth century. Don’t try and read it systematically: just browse. Ricks’s introductory essay, ‘Of English Verse’, is a suggestive account of the line of great poet-critics that is one of the characteristics of the English critical tradition. Another excellent anthology is The Rattle Bag by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney (Faber); and, of modern verse, Scanning the Century, ed. Peter Forbes (Penguin).
A general reference book can be a helpful friend if you come across a reference or an allusion you don’t recognise: Dinah Birch’s Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford University Press) is a good one.
Once here, you will spend a lot of your time writing essays of literary criticism and appreciation, and it is a good idea to see how other people do it. A book of essays to sample might be Christopher Ricks’s The Force of Poetry (Oxford University Press), an outstanding collection of pieces about English poets from Gower to Stevie Smith. The essays of Seamus Heaney are exemplary in their balancing of local detail and broader understanding: his selected prose is gathered in a volume called Finders Keepers (Faber). Helen Vendler also combines the close reading of texts with wider concerns in a distinguished way: her essays are collected in several volumes, such as The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (Harvard University Press). Barbara Everett’s book Poets in their Time (Faber) is long out of print but worth seeking out in a library or on-line: it is a wonderful collection of critical pieces. Stephanie Burt’s The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard University Press) is a vivid anthology of modern American poems with short essays about them.
For the Victorian period, the best single annotated anthology is probably Valentine Cunningham’s The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics (Blackwell): it is out of print but you could find it second hand or in a library. Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, ed. Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, and Cath Sharrock (Oxford University Press) is a generous and capacious book which illuminates the variety of women’s poetry in the century. Daniel Karlin’s Penguin Book of Victorian Poems is also excellent. Together they contain most of the poems I have listed below, but the poems are widely available elsewhere, many on-line; and all the novels are in Penguin or Oxford World’s Classics or other cheap editions other than those I have mentioned. It doesn’t often matter too much which edition you use, but I’ve made a few suggestions below in case you would like to buy some books beforehand.
It is probably not worth plunging too deeply into works of criticism or historical context at this stage; but if you would like to look at some easy-to-swallow history you could try A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians (Arrow). There is a marvellous old book (1913) by G.K. Chesterton called The Victorian Age in English Literature that you might enjoy. Philip Davis’s The Victorians (Oxford University Press) is full of suggestive criticism; Angela Leighton’s Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Root) is also very good; Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetic and Politics (Routledge) is an extraordinarily ranging and ideologically attuned account. George Levine’s How to Read the Victorian Novel (Blackwell) is an attractive and original guide to the genre; Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (Routledge) is a celebrated and highly readable account of the impact of evolutionary thought on fiction of the period. But please feel free to concentrate on the primary texts for now.
The following texts are what you should read before you come up to Oxford:
- Alfred Tennyson (1809−1892), Mariana, In Memoriam, Maud
- Walt Whitman (181901892), Leaves of Grass
- Emily Brontë (1818−1848), Wuthering Heights
- Frederick Douglass (?1818–1895), Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
- George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) (1819−1880), Middlemarch
- Henry James (1843−1916), Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers
- Joseph Conrad (1857−1924), Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent
I have also made a list of a lot of other Victorian works which you might best try next, but this list is for your guidance rather than all required reading. Follow your enthusiasms.
Twentieth and Twenty-First Literature
You have enough to be getting on with, I am sure; but if you want to try something in anticipation of the modern paper which we are studying in Hilary term you might try the following: E.M. Forster, Howards End; James Joyce, Dubliners; Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse; Saul Bellow, Seize the Day; James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.
Seamus Perry July 2023