MIT OpenCourseWare


Examples of student work are available for this course.

Assignment 1

The scientific / didactic poem - textual analysis and website project

  1. Choose a poem from among the scientific or didactic poems (or parodies thereof) listed below; poems primarily available online at Literature Online are indicated with an asterisk, though some of these poems may still be readily available; speak to your librarian or ask me if you have any difficulty finding reading copies.
    • Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe)

    • Alexander Pope, Essay on Man

    • Mark Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination

    • John Armstrong, The Art of Preserving Health*

    • James Thomson, The Seasons, "Summer"

    • Matthew Green, The Spleen*

    • Thomas Warton, "The Pleasures of Melancholy"

    • Richard Blackmore, The Creation*

    • Henry Brooke, Universal Beauty*

    • Samuel Rogers, The Pleasures of Memory*

    • William Blake, An Island in the Moon

    • Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

    • Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature; or, The Origins of Society

    • George Canning et. al (in Anti-Jacobin), "The Loves of the Triangles"

    • Richard Payne Knight, The Progress of Civil Society*

    • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, An Essay on Mind*

  2. Select a passage of approximately 50-100 lines from the text. These may be sequential lines, or you may bring together a few different sections of the poem - the choice is yours, provided that you offer a rationale for your selection from the text (see #3 below).

  3. Write a 4-5 page analysis of the passage you have excerpted, paying particular attention to its formal characteristics, its philosophical, ethical, and scientific content, and the place of the excerpt within the structure of the entire poem (or larger selection). You may or may not also choose to incorporate historical or biographical information about the author and/or the poem if this would be useful to your reader. Your aim should not be to write an encyclopedia entry on the author or text, however, but rather to provide a close analysis of the passage you have selected and an account of its larger significance as a unique contribution to the genre of didactic or scientific poetry. In other words, your essay should try to present an argument about and a coherent reading of the passage you have selected.

  4. Collect, from the internet or from books and other printed resources, 3-4 relevant images to accompany your excerpt and analysis. These images may be directly related to the text you have chosen (such as portraits of the author or of the book's title page, etc.) or more associative thematic connections (such as landscape paintings, medical illustrations from the period, etc.) Provide captions for all images, and, where necessary, a brief account of its relationship to the text you have chosen.

  5. Bring in copies of your essay to all members of the class; you will describe your project and we will discuss projects collectively in a subsequent class. Revisions of your essays will be due on session 17.

First Draft due on session 11.

Essay 1

Checklist for editing your partner's paper (with thanks to Prof. Diana Henderson)

First, read through the paper to get a sense of its main points and arguments. Next, write a brief (1-2 paragraph) response to the essay. On Session 15, when we will meet to hear presentations on papers, give one copy of your response to the essay's author and one copy to me.

Begin your response by recording what you perceive to be the paper's thesis. Also state the essay's two strongest arguments, insights, or uses of evidence. Finally, state one or two particular ways in which the paper could be revised so that it is more compelling (be they matters of argument, style, or clarity). You can do this on the back of the essay or on a separate sheet.

Questions to consider

  • Does the paper have a clear focus?

  • Do the particular arguments make sense?

  • Is the textual excerpt well-chosen, and does the essay as a whole provide a reading of/argument about the passage under consideration?

  • Is textual evidence cited to support the arguments?

  • Do the specific passages cited match the claims made?

  • Do the paragraphs help organize the paper by introducing new ideas or new aspects to previous arguments?

  • Are ideas and paragraphs sufficiently developed and clear?

  • Are the ideas presented in a logical order? Do paragraphs follow one another clearly?

  • If you disagree at any point, why?

  • If you are unsure you follow or agree at any point, try to say why?

Conclude your response by giving your overall appraisal of the essay, as well any other specific suggestions you think might help the author in revising it.

Assignment 2

Final Essay

For your second essay assignment, write a 10-15 page essay on one of the following topics. While your first essay explored in some depth an excerpt from a single poem, your second essay should have a comparative emphasis - that is, you should focus on and develop an argument out of a reading of two or (at most) three authors and/or texts. Think of this as a sophisticated variation on the "compare and contrast" essay, where you draw relationships and distinctions between a few texts, and consider what we may be learned by reading these texts as formulations of or responses to a single issue or problem. Considered loosely as a group, what may these works teach us about your chosen topic and about eighteenth-century or British Romantic poetry more generally? I have listed below a few topics that you might consider; you are certainly welcome to write an essay on a topic of your choice, provided that you meet with me in advance to discuss your ideas for the topic.

Though you are welcome to write about poems we have already discussed in class, be sure that your argument does not simply reproduce our discussion of the text. Wherever possible, focus on key passages that offer a particularly fruitful way to frame or address a question about the poem under discussion. Be as specific as possible, and develop your argument out of your reading of the text. Make sure that your quotations do some "work" for your argument: do not, in other words, use quotations merely to illustrate an otherwise self-evident point; by the same token, do not presume the self-evidence of your quotations, but describe what significance the quoted passage has within the whole or in the context of your argument.

Some Possible Topics

  • Competing definitions of reason/rationality

  • Reason and self-reflection in eighteenth-century poetry

  • Reason and its "others" (passion, enthusiasm, madness, etc.)

  • Newton, Newtonianism, and the poets

  • The imagination: eighteenth-century/Romantic definitions and defenses

  • Vision, the visionary, and poetic imagination

  • Reason and imagination in the scientific poem

  • Lucretius and Epicureanism in eighteenth-century poetry

  • Materialism in medicine, philosophy, and poetry

  • Sentiment and sensibility; the physiology of the nerves and brain

  • Disorders and diagnoses: hysteria/hypochondria/melancholy/etc

  • Religious enthusiasm and scientific rationality

  • The late eighteenth-century critique of science/reason/rationality

  • Wordsworth and the didactic/scientific poem tradition

  • Keats and medical science

If you have any questions, doubts, hesitations, or problems, feel free to contact me.

Final Paper due on Session 26.

Examples of Student Work

All student work is used with the permission of the author.

Essay 1
James Thomson The Seasons 'Summer' Lindsay Hays (PDF)
An Analysis of Matthew Green's 'The Spleen' Emily Proctor (PDF)
Whatever Is, Is Right William Walsh (PDF)
Essay 1 Revised
For God's Sake! - The Need for a Creator in Brooke's Universal Beauty Jonathan Blum (PDF)
The Roles of Imagination and Reason in Morality Youngsun Cho (PDF)
Impact of the Fundamental Tension between Poetic Craft and the Scientific Principles which Lucretius Introduces in De Rerum Natura JoHanna Przybylowski (PDF)
Final Essay
Wordsworth's Examination of the Role of Nature in Reason JoHanna Przybylowski (PDF)
The Torch of Experience William Walsh (PDF)