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History of Literature in English

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This course surveys the major periods, important developments, and most influential authors of literature in English from the Middle Ages to the present. It tells the story of how English literary culture began as the property of a small population in a remote corner of Europe and grew into the global phenomenon it presently is. Thus, the first half of the course will focus exclusively on British literature, and primarily on poetry, because that is what there was; the second half will feature increasing amounts of prose, and a broadening geographical scope.

Texts that are remote from us in time can be difficult to approach unless readers have a sense of the forms, styles, and preoccupations that obtained in different periods. This course aims to provide a set of orientation points that help readers to approach, say, an Augustan, a Romantic, a Modernist, or a Postcolonial text with with an informed sense of what to look for. To that end, students will be taught historical and intellectual contexts for these authors’ works, strategies of close reading, and a precise critical vocabulary.

Ultimately though, our concern will be with the relationship between writers and readers, and we will focus on both parties of that relationship by asking the following questions:

  • Who is reading and who is writing? Sex, social class, and race influence a reader’s access to literary culture differently in different periods.
  • How do readers and writers encounter one another? The shift from manuscript culture to print culture, and then to global mass market, affect not only the number of people reading but also the type of text that becomes popular.
  • Why do writers write and readers read? The hardest question to answer, this one forces us to consider the different purposes literature can serve (instructional, entertaining, politically subversive, etc.), as well as the most basic question of what qualifies as literature in the first place.


Assessments consist of:

  • 1–2 short essays
  • At least one shorter written assignment
  • A series of short quizzes
  • Exam at the end of each term


  • ENGL 100

Additional information

This is a core course for all English plans. On-campus students are strongly encouraged to take this course in person. 

Exclusion: ENGL 110

Department of English, Queen's University

Watson Hall
49 Bader Lane
Kingston ON K7L 3N6

Telephone (613) 533-2153



Queen's University is situated on traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory.