We should tread carefully as we diversify the canon

Yale University


In late May, the floorboards began to creak beneath the feet of the English department at Yale University. “Undergraduates in the English department have authored a petition to ‘decolonise’ the department’s introductory curriculum,” the Yale Daily News, the college’s student newspaper, reported. The petition, which at one point had gathered around 160 signatures, called on Yale’s English department to “decolonise — not diversify — its course offerings.” Particular scorn was directed towards the department’s “Major English Poets” sequence, a core prerequisite in the English major at Yale that requires students to study, in the words of the department’s website, “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.” Notice a common theme here? Apparently, to be a “major English poet,” you must be white and male.

Here at Durham, where the English department has been ranked first in the UK for the last four years (according to the Complete University Guide), some students might feel that the Yale petition is all too pertinent. The reasoning behind the student call to abolish the “Major English Poets” sequence at Yale is, supposedly, because “white male-centric introductory courses do not adequately prepare students to take higher level courses relating to race, gender, and ethnicity or to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship.” That’s the thing: Yale students feel inadequately prepared to go on to study more advanced courses that include discussion around race, gender, and ethnicity as part of the English major because core requirements, like the “Major English Poets” sequence, brush the broader diversity of literature in English under the rug.

English students at Durham who took the “Introduction to Poetry” module in 2014-15 might also have something to say about the lack of diversity in the study of English literature more generally. The “Introduction to Poetry” module of 2014-15 could easily have been titled “Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Poetry,” with the lecture list populated by the metaphysical prowess of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and John Milton. Again, five “major” poets who happen to be white and male.

But is it not true that they are central to an ‘Introduction to Poetry’? The idea that the “major” poets of the English literary canon have nothing to say to students who are not white and male is something we should be cautious about. While there exist very apposite arguments against what makes a writer canonical, and even whether there can exist an equitable, “decolonised” canon at all, writers like Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot were foundational to the literary periods they populated.

We study Shakespeare, not exclusively, for the timelessness of his human vision and grasp of emotion; we study Eliot for his command of what would become the avant-garde. While there is little harm in studying a writer in isolation, the esteem commonly awarded to Eliot becomes far easier to appreciate when one perceives, and comprehends, the horizontal passage to his predecessors. Understanding literary influence as students of literature allows us to understand that, in fact, studying the major English poets is not about partiality, a lack of diversity, or identity politics. It is, rather, about contemplating the resourcefulness of the English language and perceiving the beauty of intertextual interaction across form and content. As the English department at Yale aptly puts it, “both Chaucer and Eliot subject the conventions of courtly romance to radical stress, but ‘The Miller’s Tale’ reads nothing like ‘The Waste Land.’”

In the same light, one might also find John Keats, another of the “major” English poets, in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Just as Shakespeare can be found in abundance in Eliot, both explicitly and implicitly, (“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” J. Alfred Prufrock exclaims), Keats’s nightingale is more subtly present in Stevens’s “Autumn Refrain,” where there is “The yellow moon of words about the nightingale / In measureless measures.” While a lot can be said about Stevens as the “anti-Romantic,” it remains that he, like Eliot, is conscious to acknowledge that his poetry at least is indebted to the measured odes of Keats. Similarly, William Blake’s phenomenological Romanticism also lingers within and around the verse and early prose of Margaret Atwood. In just one example, Atwood relies on the connection between Blake’s two “Nurse’s Song” poems, found in “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” respectively, in her volume The Circle Game to underscore the polarities of her own poem. Bloom’s argument for the “anxiety of influence” has never been more pertinent. Though white and male, the influence of the aforementioned authors lingers because they have been central to the development of English literature.

But I digress. It goes without saying that university English departments far and wide should be doing more to encourage diversity in their syllabi. Indeed, some are doing more. To study the “major” English poets should not be about gender or identity politics, but rather a critical examination of their creative contribution to the vitality of English literature. It sounds ludicrous to say, but educational institutions must recognise that being white and male are not prerequisites of success in the field of literature. Regardless, the “Major English Poets” are not the only influence, and like any author, they should not be discounted or excluded. Neither should they be left to dominate the canon solely. The petition at Yale highlights exactly what students of literature expect from their time spent at lectures and at tutorials: liberality, humanity, and inclusivity. In today’s world, there has never been a greater need.

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