English R1A

Reading and Composition: Ornament and Rhyme

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
5 Fall 2021 Reid, Angus
MWF 1-2 233 Dwinelle

Book List

(to be posted on bCourses): Tommy Thumb’s Songbook ; Blake, William: Songs of Innocence and Experience; Ross, Kristin: Communal Luxury; Sasha John, Aisha: I Have to Live

Other Readings and Media

Critical and theoretical readings from Milton, Thomas Sheridan, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Marx, William Morris, Adolf Loos, Siegfried Kracauer, Audre Lorde, Kristin Ross, Krista Thompson, Saidiya Hartman, and Anne Cheng. 


In a 1913 essay, entitled “Ornament and Crime,” Austrian architect Adolf Loos makes the claim that “ornament inflicts serious injury on people’s health.” Ornament, we are told, is regressive, childlike, and—as the title suggests—criminal. A similar line of thought runs through the history of English poetry, linking the ornamental with rhyme. From Thomas Sheridan’s argument against rhyme as a “trifling and artificial ornament,” to Wordsworth’s call for a “more naked and simple style,” English poetry has often been depicted as encumbered by the ornamental. Far from a neutral critique, this mode of thought has explicitly linked ornament and rhyme with the feminine, the racialised, and the infantile. 

Beginning with examples from the late 17th to early 19th century, and ending in the present, this course will address ornament and rhyme as a pair of intertwined aesthetic terms. Our inquiry will look to nursery rhymes, lyric poetry, visual art, and fashion, as well as critical and theoretical readings. As a central question, we will ask why both ornament and rhyme have been continuously pathologised. On the other hand, we will try to understand how they have been used in the formation of (sometimes revolutionary) social and political collectivity. How do these two phenomena fit together, and what is the fate of the ornamental in the present? In this context, we will take a necessarily capacious view of both terms, reading them alongside questions of tautology and redundancy, minimalism and excess, and luxury and poverty. Our discussions will address canonical literary and aesthetic texts, contemporary poetics, and selections from the fields of Marxism, Feminism, Black Studies, and Asian American Studies. Through these readings, we will observe the often-vexed transformation of both ornament and rhyme across different social and historical contexts. Finally, we will ask why and how ornament and rhyme bring us pleasure—what are the political, social, and aesthetic stakes of this pleasure, and why has it so often been viewed with suspicion? 

As a section of R1A, we will spend a considerable amount of time learning how to write academically. Assignments will include a number of short essays (which we will workshop), exercises in close-reading, and brief definitions of essential terms or keywords. Following the theme of the course, time will be spent addressing the question of style. We will consider the value of the ornamental within academic writing, and ask whether rhyme—broadly construed—might be a way of building argument. 

Back to Semester List