Cambridge Writers

Dr David Parry

Over its eight-hundred-year history, the University of Cambridge has nurtured many of the greatest writers of literature in English. This course will examine writers who studied and/or taught at Cambridge, reading their works in relation to their Cambridge studies and experiences.

In this course, we will look at Cambridge authors and texts across the centuries, including Edmund Spenser (who studied at Pembroke), Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, William Wordsworth, C.S. Lewis, C.P. Snow, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and through to contemporary writers such as Helen Oyeyemi and Zadie Smith (who studied at King’s). Texts covered will include poetry, prose, drama, and children’s literature. We will also give some attention to writers in other languages who studied at Cambridge, such as Chinese poet Xu Zhimo.

It was in Cambridge that these writers learned or developed their writing styles, sometimes drawing on the official university curriculum and sometimes alongside or even reacting against their formal studies. It was in Cambridge that they met friends and lovers who brought them lifelong joys and sorrows. It was in Cambridge that they acquired, developed, lost or changed political, cultural and religious convictions that would shape the course of their lives and literature. We will read texts that these writers wrote both during their time in Cambridge and in later life in the light of their Cambridge studies and of their wider Cambridge experience.

Along the way, we will travel from the origins of the University of Cambridge in a small medieval market town to the present-day university, thoroughly engaged with a complex and globalised world. We will look at how the university has both maintained enduring traditions and adapted to changing cultural circumstances. We will explore how the changing content of the university’s teaching, from the classical education of the Renaissance to the 20th and 21st century developments of ‘Cambridge English’, has influenced the development of Cambridge writers.

Cambridge has also been formative for globally influential developments in science, religion and politics, in which the Cambridge authors we will study have often played a key role. Alongside close readings of particular literary texts, the lectures and seminars in this course will discuss such historical and cultural contexts as Renaissance humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution, colonialism and post-colonial movements.

Expect a stretching but stimulating and exhilarating ride through centuries of great literature, surrounded by the buildings, ideas and experiences through which these texts took shape!

Intended Audience

Undergraduate-level students who are intellectually curious, willing to read a wide range of sometimes challenging texts, and excited to think across disciplinary boundaries. This course will be of particular relevance to literature and history majors, but will also engage with questions relevant to the study of philosophy, religion and science.

Previous Knowledge

No formal pre-requisites, though an advanced level of English language ability is needed. Students will also find it helpful to have a general awareness of the history of British literature from the Middle Ages to the present. For students who have not covered this in survey courses, it may be helpful to read the editorial introductions to the different sections in The Norton Anthology of English Literature or to visit the Norton Anthology website at .

For those who would like a head start thinking about Cambridge writers, the following websites are recommended:

Cambridge Authors:

Darkness Visible (focus on John Milton and Paradise Lost):

Transferable Knowledge and Skills

This course will develop skills in close reading, analytical writing and speaking, and the ability to connect texts with wider contexts. The knowledge gained will be relevant to future studies in many fields including literature, history, and the history and philosophy of science.