ENGL 4240: Chaucer, Literary Authority, and the Sound of Poetry


What does Chaucer have to do with rap, or medieval Canterbury to do with modern London? More than you might think. We call Chaucer the "Father of English Literature," but that label turns him into a literary relic. Sure, some of the Canterbury Tales are funny (bawdy, even), but this isn't really leisure reading. Many contemporary poets -- like Patience Agbabi and Baba Brinkman -- are working to change that preconception. These poets, especially those interested in the sound of language (like rap artists and spoken word poets), have found Chaucer's Tales to be fruitful sources of literary inspiration, reworking his stories and characters into new and compelling forms.

In so reworking Chaucer's stories, they're following in his footsteps. For Chaucer did not invent "English Literature" out of whole cloth. Rather, much of Chaucer's "genius" lies in the way he reworked older stories within a new, Middle English poetic idiom, sending up Virgil and Ovid or retelling a Boccaccio story. In this class, we'll follow that literary trail from Virgil through Chaucer to Brinkman and Ababi, watching how each storyteller reworks their predecessors and considering the literary relationship between earlier and later narratives.

Expect to work intensely with the cultural and linguistic nuances of both Chaucer's Middle English (especially but not solely his Canterbury Tales) and Patience Agbabi's newly released, multicultural, Britain-centric Telling Tales. Because much of this class has to do with the way poetry sounds, in Middle English and in modern rap and spoken word poetry, also expect to spend much time learning (with copious in-class help!) to read Middle English aloud, fluently, and with inflection and passion. Finally, expect to do both formal and informal written work (including but not limited to the traditional essay), including a substantial final project. Creative writers who wish to follow in Agbabi's footsteps may produce a creative-critical piece as their final project.

Required Texts

  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales (Broadview, ed. Boenig and Taylor). Be sure to get the FULL Canterbury Tales (first or second edition is fine, with blue or light blue spines), NOT The Canterbury Tales: A Selection (the abridged version: same editors and same press, but with a brown spine).
  • Chaucer, Dream Visions and Other Poems (Norton, ed. Lynch)
  • Agbabi, Patience, Telling Tales (Cannongate 2014). Note that there is a Kindle version available - DO NOT PURCHASE THAT INSTEAD. You MUST have a hard copy of this book (you need line breaks and page breaks to fall correctly, and you will need to be able to write in your text.
  • additional material will be made available online and via <emma>. Please budget for printing costs, as I will require you to print some items.
  • MLA Handbook (7th ed, 2009).

Recommended Texts

(not at the bookstore, but good to have to hand)

  • ¬†Andrew Galloway, Medieval Literature and Culture (Continuum)
  • ¬†Winthrop Wetherbee, Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, 2nd ed. (Cambridge)

Please check the English department course listings page for time/room information.

Semesters taught: