What we’re discussing today is the instruction in grand themes and “great books” represented by W.H. Auden’s syllabus above for his English 135, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature.” Granted, this is not an intro lit class (although I imagine that his intro class may have been punishing as well), but a course for juniors, seniors, and graduate students. Taught during the 1941-42 school year when Auden was a professor at the University of Michigan, his syllabus required over 6,000 pages of reading in just a single semester (and for only two credits!).
The list includes Othello, Hamlet, Moby Dick, Faust, Peer Gynt and Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, plus Kafka’s The Castle and several opera libretti, including Don Giovanni, Fidelio, The Flying Dutchman and Tristan. Not to mention St. Augustine’s Confessions and the Greeks and the Romans. But that was the norm before the Left sank its vampire teeth into the university. My college lit course — at a musical conservatory, mind you — included Madame Bovary, Tom Jones, Bleak House, Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Absalom Absalom, The Red and the Black, Swann’s Way, The Plague, and more. The foundation of my education, really.
Was Auden a sadistic teacher or so completely out of touch with his students that he asked of them the impossible? I do not know. But Professor Lisa Goldfarb of NYU, who is writing a series of essays on Auden, thinks the syllabus reflects as much on the poet’s own preoccupations as on his students’ needs. Goldfarb writes:
“What I find fascinating about the syllabus is how much it reflects Auden’s own overlapping interests in literature across genres – drama, lyric poetry, fiction – philosophy, and music…. He also includes so many of the figures he wrote about in his own prose and those to whom he refers in his poetry…
“By including such texts across disciplines – classical and modern literature, philosophy, music, anthropology, criticism – Auden seems to have aimed to educate his students deeply and broadly.”