Comparative Literature 186RR—Romantic Revolutions

Guidelines for the Second Essay


Due Date: September 2, 2004, in class.


General Instructions: Write a four- to five-page essay (1250-1500 words) on one of the works, issues, or events covered in the course using either the analytic or research approach described below. This essay should have a clear, unified topic and an identifiable, arguable thesis statement backed by solid evidence and logic. Your experience, impressions, and response to the topic can guide your writing, but you must establish your claims according to the standards of academic writing, that is, using the standards of evidence and argumentation considered valid within a particular discipline. If you use secondary sources (which I strongly recommend), cite them properly. If you decide to use one of the suggested topics, make sure you narrow its focus and make a strong thesis. Please do not write on the same topic that you used in your first essay.


Research Essay Topics: A research essay investigates a work, an issue, or an even by collecting, organizing, and interpreting multiple sources, including both primary sources (the works of art, poetry, or music themselves, contemporaneous historical documents, etc.) and secondary sources (scholarly books and journals).  At the very least, you should use five sources of three different varieties.  Research topics might include the following:


1.      For whom did Beethoven compose the String Quartet in Bb major, Opus 130/133, and how can an understanding of the circumstances of its composition affect its interpretation?  How different was it from previous compositions by other composers, or from earlier works by Beethoven? What audience did Beethoven expect for his work, and how was it received?  Using biographical, historical, and musicological sources, place the work in context for modern listeners.

2.      G. W. F. Hegel wrote The Phenomenology of Spirit under difficult circumstances, both personal and political.  To what extent did these circumstances influence his work?  Which other philosophers did he know, and how did their ideas affect his thinking?  What did he hope to accomplish with this work?  Did he achieve what he had hoped to achieve?  Why?

3.      The works of the English Romantic poets we have studied recently—Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley—reveal highly personal details about their lives and friends, sometimes even foreshadowing major events.  Examine a work by one of these poets in its biographical and historical context, providing your readers with what they need to know to understand it fully.

4.      Choose one of the major figures studied in the course and examine his or her relationship with a historical event or movement.  For instance, how well did Wordsworth know Godwin?  What did he think of Burke?  Which radicals did Blake, Shelley, or Wordsworth know, and what consequences did these political connections have for poetry?  What relation did any of these figures have with the slave trade, and what did he or she have to say about it?  What was Hegel or Beethoven’s opinion of Napoleon, and how were they (and their works) affected by the Napoleonic wars?


Analytic Essay Topics: An analytic essay examines one work or idea in detail in order to present a coherent, defensible interpretation.  Choose a topic that you intend to interpret thoroughly, find an appropriate interpretive method, and write a comprehensive analysis.  Consult the works of other scholars and juxtapose your own interpretation, as you deem necessary.  Analytic topics might include the following:


1.      Wordsworth’s longer poems, including “Tintern Abbey” and The Prelude, contain many shifts in time and perspective, both obvious and subtle.  Trace these shifts in a poem or a long passage, showing how and why the poem stops, starts, doubles back, and leaps forward again, and giving a precise account of what the poet describes and from what perspective.  For assistance, try looking at some literary criticism (Geoffrey Hartman’s, Alan Liu’s, or Margaret Ferguson’s works are especially good) or Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.”

2.      Examine a particular term, claim, or passage from Hegel’s Phenomenology, explaining its general meaning (in non-Hegelian terms), its function as part of the particular section it is in, and its significance for the rest of the work.  What, for instance, is “absolute knowledge” or “sense-certainty”?  Why is self-consciousness so important to the work, and why does Hegel call it “unhappy” at a certain point?

3.      Interpret a work by Turner or Constable, describing its formal characteristics, its relation to other works in the genre, and its subject matter as the basis for a coherent understanding of the work as a whole.  How does the work present an idea of what it means to perceive the visual world it presents?

4.      What is the relationship between the words and the music to Schubert’s Winterreise? What compositional choices enable Schubert to turn the song cycle into a continuous narrative? Try thinking about how you would perform Winterreise—what connections among the songs can you make through decisions about performance practice? Feel free to use secondary sources to support your thesis.

5.      Choose one of the texts from the history of abolition, and examine its rhetorical strategies, that is, how it attempts to persuade its readers to accept a certain perspective or course of action.  What references does the text make to other texts?  What evidence and mode of argument does it present?  What audience does the author expect to convince, and what passages in the text indicate that the author has a particular audience in mind?