Perhaps the most distinctive element of English at Yale is that we ask each of our majors to spend two semesters in the company of “Major English Poets”: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot or another modern poet in the spring. Our intent is to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition. Indeed, the poems we read in 125 and 126 take up questions and problems that resonate throughout the whole of English literature: the status of vernacular language, the moral promise and perils of fiction, the relationships between men and women, the nature of heroism, the riches of tradition and the yearning to make something new. That individual poems and poets engage these persistent subjects with such various results does not simply testify to the range and flexibility of the English language, it also encourages us to recognize the powerful interactions of form and content: both Chaucer and Eliot subject the conventions of courtly romance to radical stress, but “The Miller’s Tale” reads nothing like “The Waste Land.”
Students in 125 and 126 are invited to balance the broad view of literary tradition with a minute attention to language and form. Unlike most introductory surveys, 125 and 126 teach the arts of critical analysis and interpretation in small seminars. Through conversation, writing, and rewriting, students practice the pleasurable and absorbing work of making meaning out of words, lines, stanzas, and poems. Each class is likely to develop its own unique narrative threads—the tastes, interests, and expertise of the participants will shape the conversation over the course of the semester. At the end, however, the common result of these distinct experiences should be a heightened sensitivity to and curiosity about the way language works, a confidence in engaging with historically and formally diverse literary texts, and an appreciation both of the continuities that sustain English verse across the centuries and of the profound formal and philosophical shifts that divide one era from another.
The methods of reading and writing taught in 125 and 126 are every bit as important as is the content of the syllabus. Students come away with a sharpened awareness of what it means to read with the attentiveness that great literature demands. And the training has value for all writing in which the marshaling of words and facts, the construction of an argument, and the relation between text and context play a significant part. To quote a passage of some length and draw out its implications so that each word gives an account of itself; to support general assertions with the particulars of evidence; to attend to the shifts of the meaning of a single word or a phrase over time—the improvement of these skills forms an essential part of the curriculum. Not every student will choose to focus his or her future study on poetry, but the density and complexity of poetic language makes it an ideal starting place for the training of sophisticated readers and effective writers—that is, of English majors.