ENGLISH 4270/5250                                         SUMMER 2018

First Essay Assignment


Essays are due by Monday, June 11; they should be typed, double-spaced, and ±1800 words in a 12-point font. Please submit them electronically to fgrady@umsl.edu.

In considering these topics, bear in mind that they are starting points, and that simply answering in sequence the questions below will not produce a good or even a coherent essay.  Develop your own particular thesis, and be sure to support your argument through frequent and specific reference to the text.  Please let at least one human being—one who knows the difference between “its” and “it’s”—proofread your essay before you hand it in.


1. Design your own topic, of suitable specificity and sophistication, about something that interests you in Mandeville’s Travels, St. Erkenwald, Pearl, or the Chaucer poetry we’ve read. Provide me with a one-paragraph description of your topic no later than Wednesday, June 6.  Feel free to consult with me in developing this topic; discussing it with your classmates is highly recommended, too.


2. Mandeville’s Travels certainly seems to promote a tolerant attitude towards faiths other than the narrator’s own Catholicism.  But it doesn’t seem to extend that attitude towards the Jews.  Discuss the effect and the function of the text’s treatment of the Jews that Sir John “meets” during his “travels.”


3. Again, Mandeville’s Travels readily bestows credit on all sorts of non-Christian folk, from pagan princes to the dog-headed Cynocephales.  But the objects of Sir John’s admiration all seem to be men: what role do women, dog-headed or not, play in Mandeville’s Travels?

4. The author of Mandeville’s Travels is faced with a problem of credibility in the writing of his book: that is, he has to convince his readers to believe in some outlandish stories and far-fetched claims.  What strategies does he adopt in order to gain the confidence of, solicit the good will of, or otherwise seduce or browbeat his readers, so that those readers will take his text seriously? 

5. When we read medieval English literature, we are exploring and trying to understand artifacts from our past. In St. Erkenwald, characters from the medieval period confront their own past, in the form of the miraculously preserved and surprisingly loquacious pagan judge.  Write an essay about that story of memory/ remembrance/memorialization: the problems it evokes, the issues it raises, the strategies it requires, the rewards it produces.


6. Do you think that St. Erkenwald was written by the same person who wrote Pearl?


7. Pearl is a religious dream-vision, while Chaucer’s Parliament is a secular one.  In what ways do they overlap?


8. The Parliament of Fowls has a pretty extensive soundtrack: the harmony of the spheres, the music in the garden, the sighs in the temple, the noises of the birds, etc.  Write an essay about the theme of sound/noise/music in the Parliament.


9. One critical preoccupation concerning the Parliament of Fowls has traditionally been its thematic integrity, and whether it can be said to have any. What holds the Parliament of Fowls together thematically? Do its parts connect logically, or according to some other principle of organization—or not at all?  Is there some aspect of structure or form or tone that unifies the poem, in the absence of any consistent thematic development—or is there actually a theme consistently developed?  (Translation: What is the Parliament of Fowls really about?)


10. Starting with the role of the tercelet in the Parliament of Fowls, write an essay in which you discuss the way in which feminine desire gets represented--if it does--in Chaucer's work.  What do women (and birds) want--if they want anything?  And what effect does acknowledging (or not acknowledging) their desires have on things [narratives, best-laid plans, the status quo, masculine intentions]?  Redefine the terms of this question in any way you need to in order to produce an essay about the status of the female characters in the two Chaucer poems we’ve read.


11. Use these critical remarks about the Franklin’s Tale by Susan Crane as the starting point for an essay about Dorigen’s choices, and Chaucer’s, in that tale.


12. The topic of "gentilesse" arises repeatedly in Chaucer’s poetry: in the Parliament of Fowls, the narrator praises the “gentil ple” of the eagles, while the end of the Franklin’s Tale is apparently full of “gentil” deeds. What does it mean to be “gentil”—and what are the ways that the concept is complicated in Chaucer’s work?