Undergraduate English Courses
358:435 Seminar: Travel Narratives: Exploring Terra Incognita in Early Modern England
01 TTH6 CAC 08598 MCKEON MU-107
Travel Narratives: Exploring Terra Incognita in Early Modern England
One reason traditional cultures are stable is because their members shun mobility and stay at home. But in early modern England, the means and opportunities for physical mobility had become greater than ever before, and the sea voyage was the long-distance mode of travel.
The lives and imaginations of astonished Europeans had been opened up to the New World by the Renaissance voyages of discovery. The most far-flung sorts of travel, traditionally dismissed as fantastic or utopian, had become a reality, and the great blank spaces on medieval maps, marked terra incognita or "unknown land," were rapidly getting filled in. The sense of expectation and wonder at what lies out there beyond our ken was easily shared by other, more local and domestic kinds of travel--from village to marketplace, from country to city--where the destination might in literal terms already be "known" yet nonetheless filled with possibility. As travel of all sorts became easier, even normal, it seemed that changing your physical place might be the key to changing everything--for good and for ill. Thus physical mobility might result in social mobility, both up and down the social hierarchy. And the voyage of discovery irresistibly became a powerfully seductive metaphor for the transformative experience itself of gaining knowledge.
This seminar will explore early modern travel narratives in all of these senses. We'll read about "real" travels of various kinds--captivity narratives, religious pilgrimages, the first tourist guides, adventures in piracy, new-world settlement, and scientific fact-gathering--but also fictional narratives like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which is only the best of a multitude of travel narratives that parodied the sort of story Defoe was telling.
As travel narratives became increasingly common and fashionable, some readers found it hard to tell the difference between authentic accounts and fabricated ones that used all the right literary conventions. Indeed, some readers got fed up with the whole genre. Looking back to the Middle Ages, the earl of Shaftesbury wrote: "These are in our present days, what books of chivalry were, in those of our forefathers. ... So enchanted we are with the travelling memoirs of any casual adventurer, that ... no sooner has he taken shipping at the mouth of the Thames, or sent his baggage before him to Gravesend or Buoy in the Nore, than strait our attention is earnestly taken up."
Another reader sarcastically praised the "plain" style in which many such travels were narrated, which was flatly factual and left nothing out, however incongruous: they "have an incomparable grace in them, and please much more than many other things made of more precious materials: We cast anchor. We made ready to sail. The wind took courage. Robin is dead. We said Mass. We vomited."
The very strength of this skepticism testifies to the "enchantment" exerted by travel narratives. The poetry we'll read is likewise fascinated by the way old poetic topics--like the tyranny of love, pastoral retreat, religious devotion, the vision of paradise, the return of the Golden Age--could be given new life by exploiting travel narrative commonplaces. Even political philosophy found inspiration in stories about the discovery of strange new worlds. Struggling to describe a hypothetical, original "state of nature" in which no one was king and from which emerged the "social contract" of government by the people, John Locke wrote: "In the beginning all the world was America."
As the eighteenth century progressed, authors adapted the plots and language of outward, physical travel to increasingly individualized, even interiorized, sorts of development. James Boswell conceived his actual trip from Scotland to London as a virtual rite of passage to adulthood and self-acceptance. Samuel Johnson's "oriental tale" Rasselas narrates the endless wanderings of an imaginary Prince of Abyssinia as "the wants of him who wants nothing": the capacity to satisfy all material desires only creates new, "imaginary" desires that are unlimited and insatiable. William Cowper's profoundly personal poem uses the story of a nautical castaway to evoke the harrowing descent of the soul into the terra incognita of despair and madness.
In the end, the travel narrative became an extraordinarily versatile means by which people could imagine, in concrete and palpable form, the experience of change itself: not only worldly change but also the voyages we take into the most interior landscapes of the mind.
Readings will include the following authors: St. Augustine, Christopher Columbus, Richard Hakluyt, Francis Bacon, George Herbert, Francis Goodwin, Henry Neville, Andrew Marvell, William Dampier, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, William Collins, Phillis Wheatley, and William Cowper.