Langland to Langley: a poetry course

Detail from the Morley murals: what's going on here?
Detail from the Morley murals: what's going on here?
Detail from the Morley murals: what’s going on here?

This Christmas I was invited by Natalie Joelle to design and co-convene as visiting lecturer a course at Morley College (a venerable adult education institution in Lambeth with Bawden and Ravilious murals of The Canterbury Tales on the walls of the refectory) entitled ‘Understanding Poetry: Langland to Larkin and Beyond’. The brief I was given is technical, promising to introduce students to a range of forms and metres, and has a distinctly Prac Crit / close reading kinda vibe. The title already existed, but, aside from the obligation to include those two names, the content of the course still needed to be filled in. This left me with nine slots in which to convey something of an invariably personal and idiosyncratic but hopefully also in some oblique way representative idea of British poetic practice as it has existed over roughly the last 600 years (1380s – 2008). The act of selection, especially when implicitly underwritten by the specifics of an individual’s educational history, is risky and inevitably political, which is why I thought it would be a good idea to post a list of the texts chosen for each of the 11 weeks, to invite challenge and interrogate the mechanics of canon-formation in miniature. There are some quite tight historical concentrations around the interregnum and the late 18th-century, and out of the nine slots I had to fill I wanted at least four women, which given the huge historical imbalance of available material and certain very canonical texts I wanted to include by famous male poets (Wordsworth, Milton) is not too bad, albeit also not good enough. Texts by near-contemporary female poets (Smith, Hutchinson) will hopefully speak to ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Lycidas’ in intriguing ways. It has been pointed out to me that the choices are not the cheeriest, and nor are they very much concerned with love, amorous or romantic. Rather, the pastoral, landscape / rural politics, death and memory, and the nonhuman world (predictably) dominate, though it was never intended as such. Already I can see unexpected connections across long time gaps: the alliterative couplets of Langland intensely re-worked by Hopkins, for example. And the experience of ranging beyond the cloisters of Bloomsbury, Land of Learning, already throws up serendipitous connections: ‘Lambeth’, from the Old English lambehyðe, meaning “place where lambs are embarked or landed”, situates the Southern shore as precisely the point where rural production and urban consumption met and goods were ferried across. Anyway, here are the poems:

Understanding Poetry: Langland to Larkin and Beyond                                                        

Week 1 (13th Jan): William Langland, ‘In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne, / I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were…’ (opening of the ‘Prologue’ to Piers Ploughman, ms., c. 1370-90)

Week 2 (20th Jan): Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembrokeshire, ‘Psalm 51’ (written c. 1590s, gifted to Queen Elizabeth as The Psalmes of David, 1599)

Week 3 (27th Jan): John Milton, ‘Lycidas’ (Justa Edouardo King Naufrago, 1637)

Week 4 (3rd Feb): Lucy Hutchinson, ‘Another on the Sun Shine’ (Elegies ms., c. 1664-68)

Week 5 (10th Feb): Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet II. Written at the Close of Spring’ (Elegiac Sonnets, 1786)

Week 6 (17th Feb): William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’ (from Lyrical Ballads, 1798)

Week 7 (24th Feb): Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Ashboughs’ (version a. 1887?; published 1918)

Week 8 (3rd Mar): Phillip Larkin, ‘Church Going’ (The Less Deceived, 1955)

Week 9 (10th Mar): Basil Bunting, I. ‘Brag, sweet tenor bull, / descant on Rawthey’s madrigal…’ (from Briggflatts, 1965)

Week 10 (17th Mar): Denise Riley, ‘Pastoral’ (from Mop Mop Georgette, 1993)

Week 11 (24th Mar): R. F. Langley, ‘Videlicet’ (London Review of Books, 2008)

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