It's no secret that an English degree is the first choice of higher education for many writers! From my experience, there is one thing I can say with certainty: you don't go into an English degree unless you love to read and write. Voraciously.
You must love reading dearly in order to survive the piles, no, mountains, of dry, dense, verbose books and articles required for every class. English majors must quickly learn to devour tough academic articles and secondary sources as well as class readings. I wish that my English degree required reading only the fun stuff--fiction and poetry--but a large part of an English degree is made up of research. Be prepared to get meta and read books about books, words about words. And be prepared to analyze your beloved books through an academic lens.
A critical skill for English majors is distilling large amounts of data into salient points to serve a thesis, an argument. To achieve this end, you must read and understand your reading--which is not an easy task, because you must do this even when you don't have time to fully read a text or an article (no student I know of has time to read 10 books a month let alone the additional readings about the books). Truly, English majors have made skim-reading into an art-form.
But no matter how skilled you are at skim-reading, research, and a control+F search, there are some books that are extremely beneficial to know, and know well, in order to excel in your studies. As much as I adore reading, there are some books that I never got around to reading before starting my English degree... books that would have made understanding English literature much easier.
The point of a bachelor's degree is to make a generalist. In English, you'll take a broad range of classes and learn about literature from various time-periods. Usually, these categories include Old English literature (Beowulf!), Middle English (Chaucer), Early Modern English (Shakespeare), Romanticism (Keats Keats Keats), the Victorians, Modernism, and Post-Modernism. At my university, requirements also included post-colonial classes, theory, language, and American or Canadian or Indigenous literature.
While the three books I recommend reading to prepare for an English degree don't apply to all of these periods of English literature, they are relevant to the vast majority! Intertextuality is ever-present in literature. Authors speak to each other, echo each other. Like how trees in a forest communicate through root systems, texts communicate with other texts through time.
Three Books Every English Major Should Read:
1. The Bible
Before starting university my knowledge of the Bible pretty much came exclusively from the movie Jesus Christ Superstar.
I didn't grow up in a religious family or community, have never been to church except as a tourist, and I've never read the Bible. I remember going to my best friend's house as a kid and not knowing what to do with my hands when her family said grace and everyone crossed themselves. And though I was curious about religion, and though churches are some of the most resonant, awe-inspiring spaces I've set foot in, I still didn't read the Bible before starting my degree.
And yet, it's impossible to complete your English degree without encountering biblical stories. So much of English literature reflects the culture of the English people, and English culture for the last thousand years (and more) has been highly Christian. Biblical ideology permeated life, and so naturally it permeates literature.
You will be hard-pressed to find completely secular surviving Old and Middle English texts. Sometimes in Old and Middle English texts biblical references are conversational, sometimes they feel like a formality to justify the resources used to create the text (because only important texts were ever written down, and religious texts were considered the most important), and sometimes the biblical references provoke thought or challenge beliefs. Other times, texts are clearly patristic and instructional--such as stories about saint's lives.
Oftentimes, the overtly religious lines from extant texts that aren't inherently religious in content have the religious references clustered towards the beginning or ending. For example, Beowulf, an oral legend with little to do on the surface about religion, has Christian references at the beginning. The text establishes that Beowulf was a gift from God to his father who was a respected leader and a warrior king:
He was a noble King! Then a son was born to him, a child in the court, sent by God to comfort the Danes; for He had seen their dire distress, that once they suffered hardship for a long while, lacking a lord; and the Lord of Life, King of Heaven, granted this boy glory. (2)
One of my favourite Middle English texts, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ends on a religious note:
Now may the thorn-crowned God Bring us to his bliss! AMEN. (141)
The same author who wrote Gawain and the Green Knight also wrote Cleanness, a patristic Middle English text that recounts Biblical tales and teaches about the theological value and virtue of physical and moral cleanliness. The tales outlined in the text include (among others) the story of Noah's Ark and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
If we jump forward approximately 400 years from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth century, biblical references remain just as prevalent in literature. One of my favourite Romantic poets, William Blake, wrote two famous poems--The Lamb and The Tyger--that meditate on the beauty and awe of God's creations. For example, here is The Lamb:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Aside from reading material that directly gestures to the Christian religion such as in the above examples, you will encounter symbolic gesturing frequently. For example, the story of Adam and Eve and temptation permeates gender archetypes in literature throughout history, and so garden imagery and snake imagery are often used in literature as symbols for temptation.
There are so many references and nuances I missed going through my degree. Reading the Bible beforehand will prepare you to see and understand the references being made and the meaning of them to both text and author. Understanding biblical allegory and references will help you untangle whether the engagement of the author with religion is supportive or questioning.
The insight offered by this holy book when reading English literature is unmistakable, and so I recommend that regardless of your personal beliefs, you should read the Bible before starting your English degree. I wish I would have!
2. Ovid's Metamorphoses
I don't know a single English Major who isn't enthralled by Greek and Roman Mythology. Not-a-one! English majors love mythology of all types.
And similarly, many writers from throughout history have been inspired by classical mythology. As such, references to it are everywhere.
Ovid's Metamorphoses is an epic poem that collects and pulls together many different myths. The book explores tales of transformation (of metamorphoses) and of passion. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "The stories, which are unrelated, are told in chronological order from the creation of the world (the first metamorphosis, of chaos into order) to the death and deification of Julius Caesar (the culminating metamorphosis)." Written in Latin in 8 CE by Ovid, this book became one of the great classical works of literature that writers often engaged with in their own works, and it has maintained this status for centuries.
For example, approximately 1,600 years after it's publication, Shakespeare clearly pulls ideas from Metamorphoses into his plays. The plot of "Romeo and Juliet" pulls from the story of star-crossed lovers Thisbe and Pyramus, whose story appears in Metamorphoses. Further, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a band of carpenters practice the play "Thisbe and Pyramus." So Shakespeare was undeniably familiar with Ovid's poem and the tales in it!
In 1820 the Romantic writer John Keats wrote a poem entitled "The Eve of St. Agnes" which outlines an obscure biblical holiday and also alludes to Greek mythology. Specifically, it clearly references two mythical people from Metamorphoses, Philomela and Morpheus. References in literature aren't always overt--often they are extremely subtle. Philomela is not called by name in the poem, rather, the female character Madeline is compared to a "tongueless nightingale" (line 206). This line references Philomela, who is, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, turned into a nightingale after having her tongue cut out.
One reference to Morpheus in "The Eve of St. Agnes" is when the character Porphyro wishes for "some drowsy Morphean amulet" (line 257). According to Metamorphoses, Morpheus is associated with sleep because he a son of Hypnos (the God of Sleep). Morpheus in particular has the power to enter the dreams of mortals in any form he chooses and impart prophetic messages. The Morphean amulet, then, can be assumed to be an amulet that either coaxes the wearer into sleep or allows the wearer to enter the dreams of people. Either way, Keats is pulling from knowledge gained through a familiarity with the stories told in Metamorphoses.
The myths Ovid tells in Metamorphoses have captured the hearts and imaginations of writers for two thousand years. It's definitely worth the read! And I promise if you read it you will pick up on references and allusions that others will pass over.
3. Dante's Inferno (The Divine Comedy)
Dante's Inferno (published in 1320) is a fascinating read in which the author inserts himself. In the poem, Dante Alighieri encounters the ghost of the poet Virgil, who guides him through the nine circles of hell (where he actually meets Ovid and other poets who were born before knowing of Christ). It is originally written in an Italian dialect--which was shocking for the time as most influential works were written in Latin. Dante also invented a new verse form for the text; It is written in rhyming tercets--lines of three--in a form called terza rima. This book inspired writers born shortly after him, and still inspires writers today.
For example, Chaucer, an English writer, at many points in his Canterbury Tales (published in 1387) references Dane's Inferno. One example is in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" when the wife of Bath speaks of Dante and says:
'Thus the wise poet of Florentines Dante by name, has written in these lines, For such is the opinion Dante launches, "Seldom arises by these slender branches Prowess of men, for it is God, no less, Wills us to claim of Him our gentleness." For of our parents nothing we can claim Save temporal things, and these may hurt and maim. (288)
Her quoting of Dante shows that she is well-read, just as Chaucer would have been. Possibly inspired by Dante, Chaucer also wrote in his own vernacular--in Middle English, as opposed to Latin.
As an English major, you will discover how certain historical events change everything, and how great societal changes bring about different periods in literature. The Great War is one of those events, and it signaled the shift into the Modernist period which rejected the values of writers from the Romantic period before. Yet, Dante's inferno captured the imagination of both Victorian writers and Modernist writers.
For example, The Victorian writer and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (named after Dante Alighieri!) includes characters that quote Dante Alighieri in his text "Hand and Soul," which was published in 1869. And T.S. Eliot, a Modernist writer, opens his famous 1915 poem,"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," with a six line epigraph from Dante's Inferno. After the epigraph, the poem begins:
Let us go then, you and I. When the evening is spread out against the sky. (17)
The beginning invites the reader to delve into the poem with J. Alfred Prufrock just as Virgil guides Ovid through the circles of hell.
Dante's Inferno is an extremely influential read, and if you familiarize yourself with it, you will find references to it in unexpected places.
Bonus! Homer's The Odyssey and The Iliad
While I don't think reading Homer's The Odyssey and The Iliad is as immediately necessary as the other three named in this article, they are certainly helpful books to read--and amazing stories to boot. The Trojan War (outlined in The Iliad) is referenced in various Old English texts and in many classical texts. Though the reality of the war is somewhat speculative, the war has reached a mythic historical status! Thus, many texts reference the war--for example, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I referenced earlier, OPENS and CLOSES with references to the Trojan War--which is a fact that gestures to how important it was in the historical memory of the poet and of society.
Personally, I love The Odyssey best of the two! Where would we be without Odysseus's wine dark sea? The adventures Odysseus faces on his way back home from the Trojan War are the very definition of epic. And if more people read the Odyssey, then more people wouldn't look at me in confusion when I say I am "stuck between Scylla and Charybdis" rather than "a rock and a hard place!"
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Buy The Books!
Purchase a copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy HERE
Purchase a copy of The Bible HERE
Purchase a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses HERE
Purchase a copy of Homer's The Iliad HERE
Purchase a copy of Homer's The Odyssey HERE
"Beowulf." Translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Oxford University Press, p. 2.
Blake, William. "The Lamb." The Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43670/the-lamb-56d222765a3e1.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Tale." The Canterbury Tales, The Penguin Group, 2003, p. 288.
Eliot, T.S. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The Wasteland and Other Poems, 2011, p. 17.
Keats, John. "The Eve of St. Agnes." The Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44470/the-eve-of-st-agnes
Rossetti, Gabriel Dante. "Hand and Soul." Internet Archive, 1895, p. 54. https://archive.org/details/HandSoulByDanteGabrielRossetti/page/n67/mode/2up/search/dante.
Shakespeare, William. "A Midsummer Night's Dream." http://shakespeare.mit.edu/midsummer/full.html.
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Edited by James Winny, Broadview Press, 2011, p. 141.