English 201B

Topics in the History of the English Language: A Linguistic Perspective on Variation and Change in a Modern English Metrical Tradition

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2021 Hanson, Kristin
TTh 12:30-2

Other Readings and Media

For primary texts, all the poems we’ll look at together -- of Petrarch, Marot, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, Tennyson, Swinburne, Hopkins, Virgil and Cædmon -- will be made available on bCourses.  For students’ individual projects, good editions of the relevant texts will be needed, but we’ll talk about that in class.

For secondary texts, we’ll start with a manuscript of a book of my own, "An Art that Nature Makes":  A Linguistic Perspective on a Meter in English, which will be made available on bCourses.  Other readings will also be made available on bCourses as they come up.

George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day (3 vols.) is always a delightful if sometimes opaque accompaniment to metrical study, but it is available online, and at the outset, at least, probably best consulted bit by bit.


This course is not about the history of the English language itself, but rather about meter, conceptualized as a linguistic literary form with an internal history of its own, shaped by language and the mind’s capacity for language.  The focus will be on modern English, with reference to other meters insofar as modern English meters are related to them.  We will begin with the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare's Sonnets, which sits at the core of the modern English metrical tradition, and affords a well-worked out example of how to conceptualize a meter as a linguistic literary form.  We will then turn to where that meter came from, and where it went.  We’ll consider Romance sources in Petrarch and Marot, and English predecessors in Wyatt, Surrey and Sidney; some immediate successors, including different versions of iambic pentameter elsewhere in Shakespeare, and in Marlowe and Donne; and finally, more radical departures in Tennyson and Swinburne, and in Hopkins’ Sprung Rhythm, together with Classical and Old English antecedents of these meters.  None of this is intended to be a history, so much as to suggest how to think about pieces of one; and the main purpose of it is to help students conceptualize and contextualize meter(s) of poet(s) they themselves are studying.  A sequence of assignments designed to support that will be the principal requirement of the course, leading to a final paper.  No prior training in linguistics or in the languages of other meters we’ll discuss is required.  

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