Expanded descriptions of Fall 2017 courses


Dan Van Tassel – Sonnets and Soliloquies: Words and Forms to Express Heart and Soul

Among the wide range and number of practitioners of the sonnet are Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who together transported the form from Italy to England, where it was enthusiastically welcomed by established and aspiring writers alike. Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare, among other Elizabethan courtiers and men and women of letters; Donne, Herrick, Milton, and many others in the 17th and 18th centuries; Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina, the Brownings, Hopkins, Hardy, Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Cummings, Heaney, Kinnell, Wallace, Collins—these and numerous other poets have carried on the tradition of sonneteering. Judging by history and potential, it is certain that in their wake others will continue to formulate their thoughts, feelings, and words in some manner of a fourteen-line verse form, with or without rhyme, familiar to us as a sonnet. We’ll be reading and discussing three dozen sonnets, each one a unique work of art that, as Keats observed, “doth tease us out of thought.”  

Clearly, modern American and British poets continue to rely on the sonnet (out of a stunning array of traditional and non-traditional forms and anti-forms) as an effective structure for versifying. Over time and spanning cultural biases, competing schools of thought, and artistic penchants, the sonnet has served as the unofficial entree to a poetic career, just as the short story has served and continues to serve as a means for apprenticing in the field of fiction, usually culminating in the production of novels.

Soliloquies have ever been stock-in-trade of playwrights. A supplement to dialogue and a special adaptation of monologue, they are considerably lengthier and more revealing than an aside. As a convention, it is understood that the speaker is addressing the audience, who are eavesdropping as it were, and that no other actor on or off stage is considered to be in earshot. The plays whose soliloquies we will be concentrating on are Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Richard the Third and Hamlet. A special case we’ll look at—and read aloud—is Robert Browning’s poem “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” technically a dramatic monologue.

As we’ll discover and document by our reading and discussing them, the works and excerpts selected for inclusion here attest to the individual artistry of a host of notable and diverse dramatists and poets. To spur our study and discussion, pump-priming questions for each assigned reading along with the texts of each sonnet will be provided in a course packet to be handed out opening day. For those who don’t otherwise have copies of the three appointed plays, inexpensive paperbacks of each can be purchased either at Content, the bookstore in downtown Northfield (at 314 Division Street), or at the St. Olaf Bookstore. Also, Dover Thrift editions are readily available from Amazon.

Calendar of Assignments

Sept. 11         To start, I’ll provide a bit of background on sonnets, defining the form and its variations and covering its origin and history. For discussion we’ll focus on a representative sonnet of Surrey, “The Soote Season”; Sonnets 18, 55, 73, 116, and 130 by Shakespeare; and Sonnet 14 by Donne. As we go along, we’ll attend to the pertinent study guides in the course packet, which also includes the text of each assigned poem.

Sept. 18          Read assigned sonnets by Herrick, “I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers”; Sidney, “Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show”; Spenser, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand”; Daniel, “Let others sing of Knights and Paladines”; Herbert, “Prayer”; and Milton, “When I consider how my light is spent.” In addition, read Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” and check out the study guides for each of these poems.

Sept. 25         Consulting the accompanying study guide, read and analyze the soliloquies from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and reflect on their respective contexts. We’ll spend time in class sharing and discussing our findings and interpretations, however similar or different.

Oct. 2             Concentrate on the soliloquies from Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, preparing for class discussion by reading them closely and going over the relevant study guide.

Oct. 9                  We’ll finish up our discussion of Richard the Third and then turn to selected sonnets by the following poets: Shelley, “Ozymandias”; Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and “When I Have Fears”; Wordsworth, “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room” and “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”; and Hardy, “Hap.” In preparation, pore over the accompanying study guide questions, which together with the texts of the poems are bundled in your course packet.

Oct. 16              Come prepared to discuss the eight key soliloquies of Hamlet along with those of Ophelia and King Claudius. Again, you’ll find the study guide helpful.

Oct. 23          For today’s discussion, read the following batch of sonnets: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”; Christina Rossetti, “After Death” and “Some Ladies dress in muslin full and white”; Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”; Frost, “Acquainted with the Night”, “Design,” and “Unharvested”; Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed” and “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines”; Kinnell, “Blackberry Eating”; Heaney, “The Forge”; and Collins, “Sonnet.” As usual, make use of the study guides.

Oct. 30           We’ll wrap up the course by considering a few more sonnets: “Dreamers” by Sassoon; “next to of course god America i” by Cummins; “Those Winter Sundays” by Hayden; “Unholy Sonnet” by Jarman; and “Building an Outhouse” by Wallace. Plus we’ll examine a representative dramatic monologue, a classification of the poetic form used by Robert Frost in “Home Burial.” Again, besides reading the specified poems, go over the respective study guides.

Remember to take a moment to submit a course evaluation online.