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Undergraduate English Courses

359:410 Poetry and Poetic Theory: The Sonnet

01 TTH5   CAC  14282  MCGILL   SC-106

Since its importation into England in the mid-16th century, the sonnet has become the preeminent poetic genre for exploring the conjunction of love and power.  In this class, we will study the history of the sonnet and bring our growing understanding of this compact poetic form to bear on a number of large questions in poetic theory.

We will spend significant time with the early sonnet sequences of Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare, then will trace the many uses to which the form was put by major poets such as John Donne, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Meredith, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Frost, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Tony Harrison, and Harryette Mullen, among others.  We will explore the long history of feminist appropriations of the sonnet form; the importance of poetic competition to the sonnet, and the importance of the sonnet to the imagination of literary tradition.  We will study sub-genres of the sonnet, such as elegiac and portrait sonnets, and experimental uses of the form by poets, visual artists, and musicians.  We will use digital facsimiles of early modern books to study early sonnet sequences; students will also work in small groups to pursue the critical and poetic history of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  

Our sustained study of the sonnet tradition will give us a testing ground for a number of theories about the nature of lyric poetry:  do short poems invariably project or ratify the existence of a speaking subject?  Must lyric poetry be understood as fundamentally asocial in nature, or to have social and political significance only insofar as it sets itself in opposition to cultural norms?  What is the place of lyric within the genre system as a whole, and does the position of lyric poetry shift in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?  Is the sonnet a form or a genre?  Is there such a thing as “lyric time”?  And if so, how might we think about the play of meditative arrest and narrative exposition across a sequence of sonnets?

Students will write regular response papers, complete three critical or creative exercises, and write two formal papers:  a 5-7 page mid-term and a 7-10-page final paper.