Backgrounds of Western Literature

This course will introduce you to epic, dramatic, mythological, Biblical, and Arthurian antecedents to medieval, Renaissance, and later (including modern) literature in English; it will equip you to better understand authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, as well as the hundreds (thousands?) of British, American, and Anglophone authors who assume knowledge of the material that we will be reading. Indeed, it is an eminently defensible statement to say that these texts not only influenced Western literature but also helped create Western culture: in a very real sense, then, the ways that we think today are conditioned in large part by these texts. It is also the case that the most significant of the authors who oppose/problematize these authors and this tradition are also intimately familiar with it. By the end of the course, you will, I hope, know these works very well indeed; in fact, I hope that you will carry them–tangibly as well as imaginatively–through and beyond your years at UH.

The reading will include the Iliad (selections), the Odyssey (complete), Sophocles (Oedipus the King and Antigone), Vergil’s Aeneid (complete), Ovid’s Metamorphoses (complete), important parts of the Bible (Old and New Testaments), St. Augustine’s Confessions  (selections), Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (selections), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (complete).

Finally, this course is in many ways a useful pendant to ENG 320 (Introduction to English Studies), in that (a) it will help you understand the antecedents of what English majors and minors study, (b) it will help you understand the concerns (historical, social, religious, thematic) of much of the literature that you will be reading as an English major or minor, and (c) it will help you with the sometimes daunting task of doing literary research: establishing the text, relating the text to its historical context, dealing (when necessary) with translations, and applying to texts appropriate interpretive methodologies.


Homer, Iliad. Trans. Richard Lattimore. U of Chicago P, 2011.
Homer, Odyssey. Trans. Emily Watson. Norton, 20018.
Sophocles, Three Theban Plays. Penguin Classics, 2000.
Vergil, Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Vintage, 1990.
Ovid, Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Indiana UP, 1960.
Holy Bible, King James Version. American Bible Society, 2011.
St. Augustine,The Confessions. Penguin Classics, 1961.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Marie Borroff. Norton, 1967.
Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table,
Signet, 2010.


Because this is a reading course on what I will assume is unfamiliar material to most in the class, I will be doing a certain amount of lecturing. Still, there will be plenty of opportunities, both inside and outside of class, for students to respond to the material: in class with questions and as part of a small-group discussion; outside of class via writing e-letters to your classmates. In order not to test your memories overmuch, we will have four “midterm” exams: on the Greek texts, on the Latin texts, on the Bible and St. Augustine, and on the Arthurian texts. The final examination will allow you to demonstrate what you have learned in the course. There will be study guides for all five tests.


E-letters to the class, graded on frequency only

An e-letter portfolio, due at the end of the semester: a couple of your best e-letters + a reflective essay on them all

Four “midterm” examinations

A final examination

A course project (many possibilities, including the chance to write something of your own based on something we’ve read for the class)