Course Syllabus

English 254b: Romanticism and Apocalypse



     Plagued by economic collapse, ecological destruction, and global wars, the world is now entering an apocalyptic stage.  As documented in prophecies from the Bible to the Mayan calendar, the world is destined to end by December 21, 2012.  Have you prepared for your survival or said “good buy” to your loved ones?  Do you expect to complete this course if you might not live to see the end of the semester?

Such prophecies are, of course, false and inaccurate, but their emotional appeal is very real.  This thematic course treats these contemporary apocalyptic anxieties as deeply rooted in the cultural and literary transformations that we now retrospectively call “British Romanticism.”  Like many people today, British Romantic writers worried about the demise of humankind and the planet, but also hoped for a regenerative revolution that remakes the world anew after the apocalypse.  We will examine the Romantic discourse of “apocalypse” as a religious, secular, and political phenomenon that captivated the British imagination between 1789 and 1830.  The following questions will guide our thinking: why does the Romantic poet-prophet replace the priest and politician as a legislator speaking for the world?  Could women adapt this prophetic position?  How does poetry assume supernatural insight into the past, present, and future?  How does “the end of history” theme shape the way British Romantics write for their contemporaries and to us—their post-apocalyptic progenitors?  In order to answer these questions, we will spend the first part of the semester studying sections of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (in its various editions); then the fierce controversy that was sparked by the 1789 revolution in France; and, during the last half of the course, the mytho-poetic prophecies of William Blake, John Keats, Lord Byron, and P. B. Shelley in order to consider the political and social impact of the French Revolution on their writings.  The course will conclude with Mary Shelley’s doomsday novel, The Last Man(1826), a romantic spoof on the Romantic’s apocalyptic poetics.



Duncan Wu, Romanticism: An Anthology (4th ed.)

William Wordsworth, The Prelude(Norton)

Mary Shelley, The Last Man(Oxford World’s Classics)

Other primary readings (on OAK under “e-reserves”)


Selected essays from Duncan Wu, A Companion to Romanticism(on OAK)

“A Romantic Timeline 1770-1851” (Romanticism, xlviii-lxxiii)

Course blog:

Lecture Notes (OAK)



                                                             Grade Percentage:

Weekly blog posts                                                    30%

Peer grading                                                              10%

First paper                                                                 15%

Term paper                                                                35%

Attendance & participation                                       10%

Weekly Blog Posts:

You are expected to post one blog entry weekly on our public course site based on that week’s assigned reading.  I will create a topic and occasionally sets of questions for each week.  I encourage you to respond to your peer’s posts, a question of your own, or to a current event that is related to this course’s theme.  Posts are meant to be informal writing assignments that help generate engaging thoughts (or questions) about anything and everything that occurs to you while reading.  They serve as the basis of our class discussions (I will occasionally call on you to share some of your thoughts on it).  The posts should be a short paragraph (300 words), however they must be written sincerely and thoughtfully.  Keep in mind that these blogs might be read by thousands of viewers online, not just by me or your peers, so expect strangers to comment on your ideas.  Although the blogs should be written informally, they should be well-written and spell-checked, with no grammatical/punctuation errors. Students are required to create tags (as many as you want) for each blog post they submit; untagged blog posts will not receive a grade.  The last time you can post on any given week is Thursday by 8:30am. 

Peer evaluation and grading: Each week an assigned student pair will be responsible for evaluating and grading the blog posts for a given week.  They will be graded on a letter grade system according to fixed rubrics included in this syllabus (see blog posts grading criterion, p.6).  The student pair will submit their written evaluations and grade to me for final approval in writing, explaining their justifications (I reserve the right to alter the grade).  The student pair is not required to submit their own post for that week. Grades are due to me (via email) by Monday of the following week at noon. More specific instructions will be discussed in class.


Term Paper:

The term paper project involves two phases: (1) You will write a 5-6 page essay on one of the many broad topics that I will distribute ahead of time in class. (2) Based on my feedback, you will revise and expand the first essay into a 12-13 page term paper.  Both phases of the project involve critical analysis of a particular theme or idea that appears in the various texts included in the course syllabus.  No secondary research is required or encouraged; original and provocative interpretations are essential. [more information on the term paper will be distributed later in the semester; see grading criterion on p. 5]


I will ask you to sign an attendance sheet in each class session.  Attendance and participation are essential in successfully completing this course and in attaining a decent grade.  The course is structured in such a way that if you were to miss a class or more it will become significantly more and more difficult to comprehend new materials to be covered in the next class session.  Moreover, this class really depends on intellectual classroom discussions and on your in-put into how this course could be shaped to your issues and concerns.  Hence, not only will your participation grade be lowered, but you will certainly offset your grades on the exams and writing assignments.  The same goes for excessive tardiness. A score of 9-10 points will be reserved only for those attending, non-tardy students who participated frequently, substantially, and positively.   Warning: More than two unexcused absenceswill be reflected in your mid-semester reports and will result in reducing your final course grade by half a letter grade!         


Excusing Absences:

I may be willing to excuse no more than two absences only in case of serious illness, family emergencies, or religious holidays/events, all of which require actual certified documentation or proof.  If you are going to miss class, please e-mail me before class begins.  It is your responsibility to make up missed work or know about any up-coming assignments.


Due dates are announced in advance, and I will be sure to give plenty of reminders.  All work must be turned in on the due date.  For the term paper, half a letter grade will be lost for each day it goes over the due date.  Late or missed blog posts will not be accepted. I will consider make-up work only for exceptional circumstances that are brought to my attention at least two weeks in advance of the designated due date.


A word of caution: copying the work of another author and passing it off as your own is plagiarism.  Papers that you or anyone else has written for another course is also considered plagiarism.  If legitimate plagiarism charges are brought against you, you may fail the course.  Please keep in mind that ignorance of the Vanderbilt Honor Code will not serve as an excuse for breaking it and is not a defense against plagiarism charges.  Please consult the Undergraduate Honor Council’s page on academic integrity for more information:  If you are unsure about citing or using source references, please read “What is plagiarism? How can I avoid it?:”


If you require any disability-related accommodations, please contact me by e-mail, phone, in my office, or after class.  If there are any issues, problems, or anxieties, either with the course itself or something outside the course, please feel free to talk with me.  Even if I am unable to help you, I can certainly send you to someone who can.




Aside from the more specific grading criterion provided in the assignment handout, I have a more general criterion for determining letter grades.  As I read your essays, I am looking at five broad areas:

1. Thesis

2. Argument

3. Paragraphs (including introductory and closing paragraph)

4. Style (especially Academic Tone)

5. Mechanics (spelling, punctuation, proofreading)

[NOTE: This general grading criterion is only meant to complement the more specific grading standards of the written assignment, and not as a replacement or substitute.]


“A” Range: [A+; A; A-]

An essay in this range will have a strong, clear thesis that demonstrates that the writer has done some thinking on her or his own about the literary text.  Evidence (from primary sources) will be well chosen and lucidly and persuasively presented.  The title and introductory paragraph will engage the reader’s interest; the conclusion will provide a sense of closure.  Transition/topic sentences in each paragraph will signal the progress of the argument and transitions within paragraphs will flow easily.  The essay will be technically well written, with few or no typographical errors and few or no problems of diction and punctuation.  An “A” or “A+” is reserved only for papers exemplifying depth and originality in argumentation and close reading; a focused thesis that strikes the reader as unexpected or even slightly odd.  It will move well beyond the essay prompt to explore the argument’s implications, and will leave the reader asking new and provocative questions about the literary text.  “A-” papers meet most of the A-level conditions but have a slight problem in one of the five areas.

“B” Range: [B+; B; B-]

An essay in this range may be less strong in one or more of the five areas, or will be generally competent, but not particularly interesting; this may be the case when the writer hasn’t engaged seriously with the literary text.  It may be that the essay is reasonably well written, but seriously misinterprets or misuses a piece of evidence in a way that damages its own case undermining the author’s credibility and control.  The essay may present fine ideas, but express them so awkwardly that the reader must expend considerable effort simply to follow the argument. “B+” is reserved for a paper that has A-level ambitions but does not achieve them; “B” papers represent commendable work with no major failings, making a clear point without any originality that pushes significant boundaries; a “B-” represents commendable work as well, but with minor problems in one or more of the five areas.


“C” Range: [C+; C; C-]

An essay in this range has a serious problem in one or more of the five areas.  An essay without a clear thesis, for example, or one that is simply a summary of the literary text, will not receive a B- grade.  The same applies to essays which reproduce long passages from a literary text, but doesn’t analyze them as evidence for its argument.  A “C+” paper has latent good ideas, but needs to foreground those ideas to the center of the paper;  a “C” or “C-” paper lacks a strong governing argument, leaving the reader with the lingering “so what?” question.

“D” and “F” Range: [D+; D; D-; F]

An essay in this range has either completely failed to meet all the five broad areas and/or has seriously misunderstood the instructions or purpose to the written assignment.  An essay in this range is not considered academic, college level work.  A “D” or “D+” paper lacks a thesis and has very few or no good ideas at all, misusing or failing to use textual evidence.  It is often full of grammatical, stylistic, and formal problems.

Blog Posts Grading Rubric:


Blog posts are evaluated on a letter grade basis.  Below is an explanation of what is expected from a post and the letter grade ranges.  Peer evaluation pairs will use these rubrics as the basis for assigning a grade.

Blog posts should meet the following four criteria:

  1. Conceptual sophistication
  2. Dialogue with readings/other blog posts/current events
  3. Artistry of writing
  4. Use of medium


“A+ to A-” Range:

These grades are reserved for an assignment that is well-written and concise (with few or no technical errors), establishes specific points, offers a working interpretation, and is not afraid to use creative mediums for self-expression.  The main criterion here is originality, defined as a clever idea or question that is surprising, unexpected, and not frequently discussed in class.  It involves providing a risky answer that tries to move beyond that which is apparent or obvious.  The assignment that is awarded this grade will have no problem identifying and explaining key passages in literary texts. 

“B to B+” Range:

This grade is awarded to an assignment that has met most of the conditions mentioned above, but is not particularly well-written or concise and offers a vague interpretation that is not well supported by textual evidence.  A blog post that receives a letter grade in this range has done an adequate job of completing the assignment, but has not really offered an original interpretation.  Instead, it has provided an obvious or expected viewpoint in an attempt to avoid any risky moves.  It will leave the reader with lingering questions about extremely important issues or ideas that were skipped over or given insufficient attention.  Overall, this grade will only be awarded to posts that have made a serious and sincere attempt to offer an interpretation, but have avoided any form of daring creativity.  In short, a grade in this range means that you have done your job well but still need to improve your interpretation.


“C+ to C” Range:

These grades are awarded only to assignments that seriously misunderstand the post category or question, avoid offering any defined stance, and/or are poorly written.  Students seeking shelter in broad generalizations and redundant summaries, without attempting to offer a working interpretation or supporting textual evidence, will be awarded a grade in this range.  In short, a “C” or “C-”means that you have not really attempted to do a close reading of a literary text or, if you have tried to do so, that you did not bother to identify, explain, or articulate important ideas.  Moreover, those students who do not treat their posts seriously and sincerely will be awarded a grade below a “C-.”  By this I mean students who treat their blog posts as “busy” work and make little or no attempt to engage a particular text, question, or idea.




(page numbers are from Romanticism: An Anthology; OAK = Online Access to Knowledge)


Week 1 (8/23): Romanticism: the Age of “The Spirit of the Age”

TR: Course introductions & Course Policies

      Shelley’s definition of his own literary period/

      excerpts from Shelley’s the Defense of Poetry(1821)(handout)

      –assign first blog category.




Week 2 (8/28 – 8/30): The Prelude (1805; 1850) [read the 1805 edition]

TU: Recap. on Shelley’s definition of “Poetry”

        William Wordsworth’s biography (411-417)

        Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 1

        Lecture Note #1

        Secondary reading:

        Seamus Perry, “Romanticism: The Brief History of a Concept” (OAK)

TR: The Prelude, Book 1 & 2

         First blog post due



Week 3 (9/4 – 9/6): The Prelude (1805; 1850) [read the 1805 edition]  


TU: The Prelude, Book 3 & 4

TR: The Prelude, Book 5 (“The Dream of the Arab”); Workshop on peer grading.


Week 4 (9/11 – 9/13): The Prelude (1805; 1850) [read the 1805 edition]


TU: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s biography (592-598)

        Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” (619-623); read both versions

TR: The Prelude, Book 6 (“Crossing the Alps”). 


Week 5 (9/18 – 9/20): England and the Radical 1790s

TU:  Richard Price, excerpts from A Discourse on the Love of Our Country(3-6);

       Edmund Burke, excerpts from Reflections on the Revolution in France(7-9; 13-16);

       Thomas Paine, from The Rights of Man, part I(23, 25-27)

       Lecture Note #2

       Secondary reading:

       David Duff, “From Revolution to Romanticism: The Historical Context to 1800”


TR:  William Godwin, excerts from Political Justice(handout); Wordsworth, excerpt of

        Book X of The Prelude [Godwinism] [Confusion and Recovery] (lines 737-965)  


Week 6 (9/25 – 9/27): Romantic Feminism

TU:  Mary Wollstonecraft’s biography (276-277); Wollstonecraft, excerpts from A

        Vindication of the Rights of Woman(279-285)

TR:  Wollstonecraft, excerpts from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(handout);

         Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s biography (31-35); Barbauld, The Rights of Woman (41-




Week 7 (10/2 – 10/4): The Life and Poetry of William Blake

TU: William Blake biography (169-174);Blake, All Religions are One (174-175); There

         is no Natural Religion (175); begin Blake, The Song of LOS(OAK)


         Lecture Note #3

         Assign first essay


TR: FALL BREAK (NO CLASS!)  Blog post due for next Tuesday 10/9


Week 8 (10/9 – 10/11): The Blakean Vision of History


TU: Blake, The Song of LOS and Europe, A Prophecy(OAK)

Secondary reading:

Morton D. Paley, “Apocalypse and Millennium” (OAK, read only from 23-32)  

TR: finish w/ Blake                                               

        No Blog post due




Week 9 (10/16 – 10/18): Keatsian History: Nostalgia or Prophecy?

TU: John Keats biography (1332-1342); Keats, The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1420-

      1432); Letter on “Negative Capability” (1350-1351); Letter on the Imagination


      Lecture Note #4


TR:  The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream(1081-92)

         Due: First Essay

         Field trip to the Nashville Parthenon


         No blog post due


Weeks 10 (10/23 – 10/25): Shelley’s Cosmic-Psychological Drama

TU: finish w/ The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream(1081-92)


         Blog post due

TR: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s biography (1043-1052); Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound,

        “Preface” and “Act 1”

        Lecture Note #5

        Secondary Reading:

        Morton Paley, “Apocalypse and Millennium.” (OAK, read only from 32-8)

        No blog post due


Week 11 (10/30 – 11/1): Shelley’s Cosmic-Psychological Drama

TU: Prometheus Unbound, Acts 2 & 3

TR: finish w/ Prometheus Unbound, Act 4




Weeks 12 (11/6 – 11/8): Mary Shelley’s The Last Man


TU: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s biography (1435-1436); The Last Man (try to read

        the entire novel)

       Lecture Note #7

TR:  The Last Man



Week 13 (11/13 – 11/15): Mary Shelley’s The Last Man


TU: continue w/ The Last Man; Mary Shelley’s journal entry, 15 May 1824 (1437)


TR: finish The Last Man


Week 14 (11/20 – 11/23): THANKSGIVING HOLIDAYS


No classes!!



Week 15: (11/27 – 11/29): The Byronic Hero

TU: Writing Workshop: on revising and rewriting an essay

TR: George Gordon Byron’s biography (837-845); Lord Byron, “Prometheus” (887-888)

        Lecture Note #6



Week 16 (12/4 – 12/6): The Byronic Hero

TU: Byron, “Darkness” (894-896); revisit The Last Man

TR: Finish w/ Byron


Term Paper due on Friday, December 14th by noon on OAK’s discussion board.


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