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Old Literature

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

To prepare for the AP® exam in May, my class has been practicing timed writing more frequently, generally from questions on old exams. After a few weeks, we find that the most difficult reading passages always seem to be those from the eighteenth century.

Correspondingly, more than any other time period, I find Augustan literature the toughest to teach. Try explaining the ostentatious erudition of Johnson, the acrid sardonicism of Swift, the dry rhetoric of Pope; not to mention the long sentences often modeled on Latin beginning with “That,” followed by long chains of formers and latters, strung together with semicolons. The poems and prose of this period are so rhetoric-laden that they probably fit better in an AP® Language course.

In order to teach it, however, I had to review the works in question. Sure, I begrudgingly read them in a freshman survey course, but what do they mean to me now? Why are these works significant (other than the fact they may appear on the test)? And how can I find an entrance point for my students?

Alexander Pope is often cited as the exemplar of Augustan literature. His belief that life was to be examined, albeit under the watchful eye of an authoritarian God, was typical of the period. Pope writes about his theory in the long poem “Essay On Man.” The oft-cited second epistle reads:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,

The proper study of mankind is Man.

But where does Man fit in with the rest of the universe? Pope writes:

See thro’ this air, this ocean, and this earth

All matter quick, and bursting into birth:

Above, how high progressive life may go!

Around, how wide! how deep extend below!

Vast chain of being! which from God began;

Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,

Beast, bird, fish, insect, who no eye can see,

No glass can reach; from infinite to thee;

From thee to nothing.—On superior powers

Were we to press, inferior might on ours;

Or in the full creation leave a void,

Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed:

From Nature’s chain whatever link you like,

Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

Through analyzing bits of these longer pieces in class, students may not feel so intimidated with this almost prosaic verse. Also, from these few lines students can build a framework in which to read Pope’s contemporaries.

Luckily, Jonathan Swift is an easier sell. The disdainful irony in “A Modest Proposal”still can shock students a few hundred years after it was written. Likewise, Gulliver’s Travels—particularly Book Four, which stands well on its own—is not overly difficult, in part because it’s not as rhetorically nuanced as some of Swift’s essays or poems (“The Battle of the Books,” for instance).

Then there’s the exam’s dark horse, Samuel Johnson. When my students encounter him, they are often, if not always, confounded. So how can we ready them for his dense prose without losing their attention?

Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets is much easier than some of his criticism (although I think reading the entire book would be overkill). Of Johnson’s biographical essays, “The Life of Richard Savage” is without a doubt the most sensational. It features controversy, drunkenness, violence, even betrayal. In one portion of the text (beginning in section 60), Johnson defends his good friend Savage against murder charges after a drunken brawl.  There are plenty of questions to be asked of Johnson, chief among them: Is Johnson just sticking up for his friend, or is this about justice—a favorite Johnson theme?

Well, that provides students with a taste of Johnsonian prose, but what of his verse? A Guardian blog in praise of Johnson lauds his brief poem “Gnothi Seauton.” Gnothi Seauton (or know thyself in English) is at once the lament of the scholar—something AP® Lit students can surely relate to—as well existential pondering. It also lends itself to comparison with Pope’s “Essay On Man.”

Boswell’s Life of Johnson—although certainly more in AP® Language territory—offers an insightful and compelling portrait of the late scholar. An excerpt will do fine (the entry about the life of Richard Savage offers a kind of behind-the-scenes supplement to the essay)—or you may make use of the BBC film based on his journals.

Although a syllabus without the Augustan-era poets can be approved, I believe it is beneficial for AP® students to deal with language from all epochs; this way when they come upon writers of the eighteenth century—identified by name or not—they aren’t confounded. We as language teachers are used to great flexibility, but when it comes to these curricular blind spots, I think it’s best for us to fill in the blanks.

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