ENGL 225: Survey of English Literature 1

Dr. Ed Risden

Fall 2015, Freshman Year


  • In-Class Written Exams
  • Final Paper
  • Final Take-Home Essay Exam


The course led up to the final paper assignment which revolved around three time periods: Medieval, Renaissance, and Neoclassical.  We were to pick works that spoke to us or fit an overall theme that carried throughout time and explicate it.  I wrote about the theme of love in Judith, King Lear, and Oroonoko.  I have a paragraph in each section summarizing the work, studying the writing elements used, and then making a claim on what the work consists of.

Final Paper

Throughout English culture, literature and stories have been important to people and how lessons were taught to them about life.  Judith taught that people can rise above their conquerors with the right encouragement (and divine help).  Volpone reminded people of what happens to cons and how justice finds a way to make everything equal again.  Gulliver’s Travels poked at society and tried to show what needed to be changed in a fun light.  These are only a few examples that English literature has.  The works that exemplify their respected periods are The Lover’s Confession, King Lear, and Oroonoko: The Royal Slave.  These works all have one major theme in common: love.  As the English culture’s literature evolved, love stayed central to the conflict.

1. Lover’s Confession by John Gower

The medieval times had a main focus on didactic teachings of morality and chivalry.  John Gower sought to teach morals by taking on an old tale and reviving it.  Creating the Lover’s Confession, Gower used his writing talent to show the king he was not done with his tales.  The Lover’s Confession epitomizes the middle ages.  Within the short poem, elements of the supernatural Gods, love, and the importance of chivalry take place.  Important aspects of the medieval culture are alluded to and showcased in this poem.

Adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the ­Lover’s Confession rejuvenates the old tales for a new audience.  John Gower was driven morally and politically to writing this tale (“John Gower” 4).  The King asked him to retell a tale to teach the people.  Genius is the narrator as he tries to advise Amans, a man who is stricken by love, how to overcome his emotions and not be conquered by them.  The tale Genius narrates is about two princesses named Progne and Philomene, Progne being the oldest.  Progne is married to a knight named Tereus, who is not as honorable as he appears.  Tereus rapes Philomene when he is sent to bring her to Progne.  He cuts out her tongue, so she can never tell what he did to her.  Despite his attempt at silencing her, Philomene weaves her story into fabric and sends it to her sister who then rescues her.  Together, the two kill Progne’s son and feed his body to Tereus.  When Tereus tries to harm them, the sisters pray to the gods who change them into birds.  The tale itself is set mainly in Tereus and Progne’s palace in the turn of Ancient to Medieval.  From the point where Tereus rapes Philomene, the mood is horrific.

The syntax of the piece stays the same throughout.  The tale is told with long, winding sentences.  Most of the sentences are long declarative sentences that set up background, show length of time passing in the story, and what is happening to the sisters.  Compound sentences are also used in dialogue and to describe the setting and events.  Prepositional phrases clarify to who the action is occurring, and where the emotion is being directed, especially in Philomene’s rape.  Appositive phrases are used to describe when the three are turned into birds.  The tone is objective and didactic.  In the tale, it is written in couplets with a rhyming scheme of aabbccdd, etcetera.  This was a familiar rhyming scheme also found in The Canterbury Tales.  Most of medieval literature did not have this rhyming scheme.  However, alliteration is present in the story, especially near the end.  Alliteration was widely used throughout the medieval period.  With the use of alliteration in this tale, it showed the brewing action against Tereus and the adrenaline brewing.  Symbolism is shown in the bird forms that they are changed into.  Philomene is changed into a nightingale, a bird known for its beautiful singing.  Progne is changed into a swallow, which is a representation of familial love and affection.  Tereus is changed into a lappewinge (also called hoopoe), a bird that signifies tapping into ancient wisdom (“Animal Totems: Dictionary of Birds” 36).  These symbols would have been recognizable in their day.

The plot of the Lover’s Confession is told in objective third point of view.  The plot is made up mostly of description of events with a sprinkle of dialogue.  The theme is a focus on the consequences of chivalry.  When knights break the code of chivalry, justice finds a way to punish them.  During the medieval ages, chivalry was important to the idea of knighthood.  Many tales in the medieval ages focus on how knights try to follow their code and what horrific events happen to them when they do not follow their code.  Tereus is only another example of this.  He broke the code of chivalry and rapes his wife’s sister.  Because of his dishonor, he ends up eating his son, which is another disgrace to himself for ingesting his own blood.  Blood relationships were important in this time as people went to war to avenge their fallen relations.

The Lover’s Confession defines the medieval period.  Through its theme of fallen knighthood, it captures the importance of following a code of honor and staying loyal to family.  The literary devices are similar to other works in the medieval period, such as The Canterbury Tales.  The overall piece is complete with a teaching of morals and supernatural flare to keep the audience’s attention.

2. King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Renaissance period was filled with romance and tragic plays.  Through comedies, tragedies, and romantic plays, the people of the Renaissance would engage in a cathartic event.  The events they would see would help them purge emotions they usually do not feel or indulge in.  A play that purged their tears and frustration was King Lear by William Shakespeare, the master of plays fueled with emotion.  With the success of emotion in King Lear, it defines the time period.

Shakespeare found inspiration from a real event that happened during his time.  A court case took place for Sir Brian Annesley when he wrote King Lear.  Sir Annesley’s daughters had tried to remove him from power by having him certified as insane.  His youngest daughter tried to protect him.  King Lear’s story is similar.  In Shakespeare’s rendition of the event, King Lear asks his daughters how much they love him.  Cordelia, his youngest daughter, says she loves him like a father after her sisters exaggerate their love for their father.  For her ‘unloving’ nature, King Lear banishes Cordelia and a servant named Kent who stands up for her. Also in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a parallel plot follows the story.  Gloucester, an earl and friend of King Lear, has two sons named Edgar and Edmund, Edmund being Gloucester’s bastard son.  Edmund is jealous of Edgar and frames him for a plot against Gloucester.  Edgar is forced to exile himself.  King Lear’s elder daughters then plot to remove their father from the throne because he is starting to go insane.  Gloucester tries to be an ally to King Lear, but for his alliance, Edmund, King Lear’s daughter Regan, and her husband, Cornwall, pluck out his eyes and leave him for dead.  Edgar, in disguise, rescues his father and tries to help him.  Kent returns to King Lear’s side in disguise as a beggar servant.  Cordelia is allowed back to King Lear after he finds out about the plots against him from his other daughters.  Goneril, King Lear’s eldest daughter, and her husband, Albany, move against King Lear and capture him and Cordelia.  Cordelia is hanged, her sisters poison each other, and Edgar kills Edmund in a duel.  In the end, King Lear dies of a broken heart.

The work is told through a variety of devices.  In true Shakespeare fashion, King Lear is written in iambic pentameter.  To demonstrate his knowledge, Shakespeare uses allusions to the Roman gods in speeches about love and war, especially with Edmund.  Complex sentences are used to convey the abstract emotional depth as more and more betrayal is revealed.  The use of simple sentences is not as abundant as the complex or compound sentences.  Shakespeare used simple sentences in answer to questions people asked and when a servant was speaking to show their lower status.  With the plotting scenes of Edmund and the two sisters, Shakespeare used cruel and blunt words and sentence structures to show the ferocity that they were plotting (Maclean 19).  In the fool’s songs, a variety of rhyming schemes appear, some being of ababcc and others aaaaaabbbb.  With each of his songs, the fool picks at King Lear and critiques what is happening.  He refers to King Lear as nuncle and continuously compares him to a child and idiot for banishing Cordelia.  Metaphor is evident in the fool’s words as well as others.  The metaphors help breathe more into the play and keep the speech rich.  Not only does it serve the plot, but the use of the fool offers tragic relief from the story to bestow some sense of ease onto the audience (Maclean 23).  Alliteration is most heavy in the end when Edmund speaks to show his single-minded ways.  Prepositional phrases are used to introduce metaphors and direct the conversations.

The story of King Lear is told in play format.  With this format, the plot is moved through dialogue and people describing what is happening.  The theme focuses on ill directed love and its consequences.  King Lear wanted to be flattered by his daughters.  Because of his pride, he sent his loyal child away and kept his viper daughters too close.  Gloucester wanted to keep his sons close to him and acknowledge his bastard child.  Instead, he allowed himself to be deluded from his true son, Edgar, and be maimed by his bastard child.  Even King Lear’s daughters experience the consequences of ill directed love.  Both Goneril and Regan wanted Edmund to take them as his wife despite being married and freshly widowed.  In search of his hand, they end up killing each other.  Through these horrific events, people are reminded to cherish the love they have.

King Lear exemplifies the Renaissance period.  Through the theme, people experience sorrow, frustration, and lost love from watching the performance.  This catharsis helps relieve people in life as they leave room to experience other emotions.  Shakespeare uses many of the Renaissance’s themes and new styles to write his plays.  As King Lear lingers in their mind, the people try to remember the cost of pride and wrong love.

3. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

The Enlightenment was full of new ideas, experimentation in literature, and revolutionizing humane rights.  Narratives popped into popularity in works such as Gulliver’s Travels, Equiano: The Interesting Narrative, and many others.  These narratives satirized and revealed problems in the society.  One of the greatest narratives that came from this period was Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: The Royal Slave.  From her narrative, she drew attention to the horrors of slavery life and being taken from home.  Through the narrative of Oroonoko, the heart of the Enlightenment is shown.

Many people wanted to ignore the problems of slavery.  People would not look too hard into where a slave came from or saw slaves as anything more than a tool.  Aphra Behn shed a different light on slaves.  Set somewhere in the 1600’s of her life, Behn places the narrative mostly in the West Indies after traveling from Africa.  The narrative focus mostly on Oroonoko who is an African prince, though it is not told from his view point but a British woman.  Oroonoko was raised by his grandfather, the King of Coramantien.  In secret, Oroonoko marries his love, Imoinda.  Sadly for him, the king notices her too and takes her for himself, ignoring the fact that she’s already married because Oroonoko never asked permission.  While Oroonoko is at war, he becomes drunk and is tricked onto a slave ship.  He tries to starve himself, but the captain of the ship promises that he will not become a slave.  Once the ship is ported, Oroonoko and the rest of his people are sold into slavery, making him realize that the white people are not to be trusted or their god.  While in slavery, he finds Imoinda also has been sold into slavery in the West Indies.  Together again, they consider themselves man and wife and become pregnant.  Oroonoko tries to help his people escape slavery by taking advantage of the white people becoming drunk and leaving.  He is captured and punished.  After he heals, Oroonoko vows vengeance and kills Imoinda, so she will not be harmed in retaliation.  White men discover him and his murder which leads them to cutting him to pieces to show an example out of him.  He is still seen as a noble, honorable man among the slaves and the narrator.

Behn conveys the narrative in a straight forward manner.  Almost all of her sentences are compound, complex, or compound-complex.  Through this use of sentences, she shows her educated background and has an easier time showing the confusion and elaborate thought that Oroonoko’s situation causes.  Also with this use of sentence structure, she helps create credibility to her audience as an educated writer.  Symbolism is evident in her narrative through the renaming of Oroonoko.  When he is sold into slavery, Tefry, his owner, renames him Caesar, who in history was a Roman Emperor who was betrayed and stabbed a number of times.  The name also can be seen as foreshadowing as he was betrayed by his owner in the end and cut to pieces while alive.  Irony is also evident in how Oroonoko leads his uprising when the white men were drunk and incapacitated, which is similar to how they tricked him into slavery.

The story is told in an epistolary format as the narrator opens with a message of herself and then primarily focuses on Oroonoko.  Because of this, the narrative is told from first person as the narrator comments on what is happening and mentions her meeting Oroonoko.  Because the narrator is obviously female, Behn also creates controversy in the social aspects of slavery (Nestvold 1).  She is sympathetic to the plight of the slave but still participates in the act of it.  With the use of the epistolary format, Behn mixes romance with the contemporary of the day, experimenting with new formats (Nestvold 3).  There is very little dialogue in the piece.  When there is, it is important as it reveals something about the people and Oroonoko as well as moves the action.  Otherwise, the narrative is mostly description of what is happening to Oroonoko and those around him.  The theme of the story shows how the savages are not the slaves taken from their homes.  The white men that took Oroonoko from Africa went back on their word and called on their God in the promise, showing Oroonoko that promises mean little.  When he tries to find freedom, he is taken back and whipped bloody and broken.  In the end when he is caught for the last time, the white men slowly cut him to pieces while he is alive until his heart gives out.  Oroonoko did not die until after they cut of his genitals, ears, nose, and arms.  He never did anything savage to them.  The murder he did commit was out of love and protection for his wife and unborn child.

Through Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, the Enlightenment and its issues of slavery and savagery is brought to light.  She lends a voice to slaves’ horrors so people could no longer ignore the brutality.  As narratives grew in popularity during this time, Behn showed her mastery despite being a woman.

4. Conclusion

Throughout English literature, love and honor has been a focus.  The style has changed over time from poetry tales, to emotion driven plays, and then to narratives.  Each age attempted to teach the audience morals and the importance of looking at emotion as necessary to humanity.  Ideas were conveyed through the words of storytellers and poets. The people that lived during this time were bettered through their literary experiences.

Works Cited

“Animal Totems: Dictionary of Birds.” Animal Spirit Totems Dictionary of Birds. Lecticom Services, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. <http://www.starstuffs.com/animal_totems/dictionary_of_birds.html>.

Aphra Behn.  “Oroonoko: The Royal Slave.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et. al.  9th ed.  Vol. C. New York. Norton. 2012. 2313- 2358.   Print.

Gower, John. “The Lover’s Confession.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et. al. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York. Norton. 2012. 348-358. Print.

“John Gower.” John Gower. Harvard. 12 May 2000. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.             <http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/authors/gower/>.

Maclean, Norman. “The Madness of Fear.” Norman Maclean. University of Chicago. 1952. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. <http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/maclean/nmr_lear.html>.

Nestvold, Ruth. “The White Mistress and the Black Slave.” The Aphra Behn Page. Lit-Arts Net, 1995. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. <http://www.lit-arts.net/Behn/racism.htm>.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et. al. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York. Norton. 2012. 1255-1339. Print.