W.H. Auden’s 1941 Literature Syllabus Asks Students to Read 32 Great Works, Covering 6000 Pages

Auden Syllabus

Accord­ing to Freud, neu­rotics nev­er know what they want, and so nev­er know when they’ve got it. So it is with the seek­er after flu­ent cul­tur­al lit­er­a­cy, who must always play catch-up to an impos­si­ble ide­al. William Grimes points this out in his New York Times review of Peter Boxall’s obnox­ious 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which “plays on every read­er’s lin­ger­ing sense of inad­e­qua­cy. Page after page reveals a writer or a nov­el unread, and there­fore a demer­it on the great report card of one’s cul­tur­al life.” Then there are the less-ambi­tious peri­od­i­cal reminders of one’s lit­er­ary insuf­fi­cien­cy, such as The Tele­graph’s “100 nov­els every­one should read,” The Guardian’s “The 100 great­est nov­els of all time: The list,” the Mod­ern Library’s “Top 100,” and the occa­sion­al, pre­ten­tious Face­book quiz etc. based on the above.

Grimes’ ref­er­ence to a report card is rel­e­vant, since 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!). Find all of the books at the bot­tom of this post.

While a few days ago we post­ed a syl­labus David Fos­ter Wal­lace cre­at­ed around sev­er­al seem­ing easy reads—mass mar­ket paper­backs and such—Auden asks his stu­dents to read in a semes­ter the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of what many under­grad­u­ate majors cov­er in all four years. Four Shake­speare plays and one Ben Jon­son? That was my first col­lege Shake­speare class. All of Moby Dick? I spent over half a semes­ter with the whale in a Melville class. And then there’s all of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy, a text so dense with obscure four­teenth cen­tu­ry Ital­ian allu­sions that in some edi­tions, foot­notes can take up half a page. And that’s bare­ly a quar­ter of the list, not to men­tion the opera libret­ti and rec­om­mend­ed crit­i­cism.

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.”

Such a broad edu­ca­tion seems out of reach for many peo­ple in a life­time, much less a sin­gle semes­ter. Now whether or not Auden actu­al­ly expect­ed stu­dents to read every­thing is anoth­er mat­ter entire­ly. Part of being a seri­ous stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture also involves learn­ing what to read, what to skim, and what to total­ly BS. Maybe anoth­er way to see this class is that since Auden knew these texts so well, his course gave stu­dents the chance to hear him lec­ture on his own jour­ney through Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture, to hear a poet from a priv­i­leged class and bygone age when “read­ing Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Uni­ver­si­ty” meant, well, read­ing all of it, and near­ly every­thing else as well (usu­al­ly in orig­i­nal lan­guages).

If that’s the kind of eru­di­tion cer­tain anx­ious read­ers aspire to, then they’re sunk. Increas­ing­ly few have the leisure, and the claims on our atten­tion are too man­i­fold. At one time in his­to­ry being ful­ly lit­er­ate meant that one read both languages—Latin and Greek. Now it no longer even means mas­ter­ing only “Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture,” but all the world’s cul­tur­al pro­duc­tions, an impos­si­ble task even for a read­er like W.H. Auden. Who could retain it all? Instead of chas­ing van­ish­ing cul­tur­al ideals, I con­sole myself with a para­phrase from the dim mem­o­ry of my last read­ing of Moby Dick: why read wide­ly when you can read deeply?

Find all of the books on Auden’s syl­labus list­ed below:

Required Read­ing

Dante — The Divine Com­e­dy
Aeschy­lus — The Agamem­non (tr. Louis Mac­Ne­ice)
Sopho­cles — Antigone (tr. Dud­ley Fitts or Fitzger­ald)
Horace — Odes
Augus­tine — Con­fes­sions
Shake­speare — Hen­ry IV, Pt 2
Shake­speare — Oth­el­lo
Shake­speare — Ham­let
Shake­speare — The Tem­pest
Ben Jon­son — Volpone
Pas­cal — Pensees
Racine — Phe­dre
Blake — Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell
Goethe — Faust, Part I
Kierkegaard — Fear and Trem­bling
Baude­laire — Jour­nals
Ibsen — Peer Gynt
Dos­to­evsky — The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov
Rim­baud — A Sea­son in Hell
Hen­ry Adams — Edu­ca­tion of Hen­ry Adams
Melville — Moby Dick
Rilke — The Jour­nal of My Oth­er Self
Kaf­ka — The Cas­tle
TS Eliot — Fam­i­ly Reunion

Orpheus (Gluck)
Don Gio­van­ni (Mozart)
The Mag­ic Flute (Mozart)
Fide­lio (Beethoven)
Fly­ing Dutch­man (Wag­n­er)
Tris­tan und Isol­de (Wag­n­er)
Göt­ter­däm­merung (Wag­n­er)
Car­men (Bizet)
Travi­a­ta (Ver­di)

Pat­terns of Cul­ture — Ruth Bene­dict
From the South Seas — Mar­garet Mead
Mid­dle­town — Robert Lynd
The Hero­ic Age — Hec­tor Chad­wick
Epic and Romance — W.P. Ker
Pla­to Today — R.H.S. Cross­man
Chris­tian­i­ty and Clas­si­cal Cul­ture — C.N. Cochrane
The Alle­go­ry of Love — C.S. Lewis

via New York Dai­ly News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

W.H. Auden Recites His 1937 Poem, ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

Nabokov Reads Loli­ta, Names the Great Books of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

The Har­vard Clas­sics: A Free, Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tion

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, musi­cian, and lit­er­ary neu­rot­ic based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (37)
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  • Each of my lit­er­a­ture class­es required rough­ly 200 pages of read­ing per week, a lit­tle more than half of Auden’s 6,000 pages. Near­ly killed me!

  • Fred says:

    As an engi­neer­ing stu­dent in the 1970s my lit­er­a­ture class­es were pret­ty easy. I’m guess­ing I read about 2500 pages per semes­ter and maybe only a cou­ple of Shakespere and Moby Dick is all I can remem­ber read­ing.

  • morris says:

    Most of those books one would have already read as a lit­er­a­ture major or grad­u­ate stu­dent, or even in high school. One would only have to round out what has­n’t been read yet.

    The opera libret­ti could be eas­i­ly con­sumed with audio record­ings at night.

    Com­pared to grad­u­ate course read­ing lists I’ve had in the past con­sist­ing of long obscure works in impen­e­tra­ble for­eign tongues, this seems like a fair­ly easy and enjoy­able class.

    • Phil Sindlinger says:

      Well. as a cur­rent high-school teacher. I sort of agree but only in prin­ci­ple and not in real­i­ty. In fact, many high-school teach­ers are now told to dis­pense with the whole notion of teach­ing a great book, Instead, we all are prompt­ed by our boss­es to teach a read­ing-writ­ing skill set or a com­mon-core stan­dard. and throw away the idea that we can “teach a book,” let alone a classic.nnYeah, if I could teach “Agamem­non” or “Antigone” as a clas­sic skill set that would be a great idea or a begin­ning. Woops here we go again.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Mor­ris: Yes, I think you’re right. At this time in his­to­ry, when high­er edu­ca­tion was still the pre­serve of a rel­a­tive elite, this read­ing list may have been rou­tine. After WWII, with the GI Bill and in suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions with the fur­ther democ­ra­ti­za­tion of high­er ed, stu­dents were much less like­ly to have had good prepara­to­ry edu­ca­tion or the leisure time to do this amount of read­ing and/or lis­ten­ing to opera, which is why, I imag­ine, this shocks us today. It more resem­bles the read­ing list for my com­pre­hen­sive Mas­ters’ exams in Eng­lish lit in 2005 more than any under­grad­u­ate syl­labus I ever encoun­tered as an Eng­lish major in the late 90s.

  • Grace Yaginuma says:

    Well, I just came across anoth­er Open Cul­ture post about how W.H. Auden liked to take Ben­zedrine, i.e., speed. Maybe he expect­ed his stu­dents to do the same?

  • Michele Harrison says:

    Sure­ly the title of Peter Box­al­l’s guide (who is as far removed from obnox­ious as any human has a right to be) give you an indi­ca­tion that there is time to do some of the read­ing he sug­gests. Auden’s list does­n’t seem heavy for an advanced course, but heav­i­ly weight­ed to clas­sics. He also includes three anthro­pol­o­gy mono­graphs for rea­sons which are not ter­ri­bly clear.

  • Tracey says:

    Mozart did­n’t write the libret­to. Emanuel Schick­aned­er did mag­ic Flute and Da Ponte was libret­tist of Don Gio­van­ni. Cred­it where it’s due.

  • Andrew Shalat says:

    Inter­est­ing­ly, he asks stu­dents to read opera libret­ti, but names the com­posers as the authors. The com­posers, Mozart among them, did not write their libret­ti. They com­posed to them, or with them. Loren­zo da Ponte, an Ital­ian Jew, wrote the libret­to for many of Mozart’s operas. Auden appar­ent­ly did­n’t know that. So now I feel bet­ter.

  • Kirill says:

    Why Opera libret­to? It is usu­al­ly filled with clichu00e9 and very dra­mat­ic but arti­fi­cial scenes, kind of like Indi­an movies… nnN­ev­er under­stood com­plains about num­ber of pages. Yes, I am used to CEOs of bil­lion dol­lar com­pa­nies proud that they did not read squat and all their grand­par­ents were thiefs and farm­ers — but are we real­ly bet­ter off from that egal­i­tar­i­an­ism? P.S. I did not read half of these books. Not my taste, or just plain have not. No pride or excus­es on that.

  • cybertao says:

    This is why they invent­ed Cliff Notes.

  • HarryBowman says:

    Any guess­es about how much it would cost to buy all these books?

    • Avi Shmueli says:

      The required read­ing books can be had, 95% on Kin­dle, the rest on paper­back, for less than $43 on Ama­zon :-) See my list: http://amzn.com/w/23E5MSRC8Q2L1 only a cou­ple could not be found on Kin­dle, and I think one (The Schwartz trans­la­tion) is now a col­lec­tors’ item and can only be had for a ran­som

      • Marya says:

        Not to for­get the real­ly inex­pen­sive edi­tions of clas­sics pub­lished by Barnes and Noble; or, bet­ter yet, the week­ly pub­lic library purge where you can find all kinds of lit for 25u00a2 or 50u00a2 a book. (Sad, isn’t it?)

  • Terry Robin Webster says:

    I had a class in col­lege where I read some­where in the neigh­bor­hood of 10 of Mark Twain’s books, not to men­tion writ­ing the papers for that class and all the oth­ers.

  • SPct says:

    All great works but not THE great works (though some of them are). Not meant to be com­pre­hen­sive or to scale all the big peaks. Actu­al­ly it’s a pret­ty idio­syn­crat­ic take on the class title: “Fate and the Indi­vid­ual in Euro­pean Lit­er­a­ture.” Not only is is inter­est­ing for what Auden includes from his own pre­oc­cu­pa­tions (Pas­cal) but for what he leaves out of that same set of obses­sions (Freud). It’s a great take con­sid­er­ing where Auden was at in ’41-’42, what he was writ­ing, and his own self-exil­ic anx­i­eties. Like it!

  • emilio says:

    Sor­ry to hear that our dear author lacks the ded­i­ca­tion or read­ing apti­tude to achieve rea­son­able lit­er­a­cy. For those of us who haven’t giv­en up, love­ly to see Auden’s syl­labus. Thanks for post­ing at least one thing of val­ue.

  • Dwayne J. Stephenson says:

    Read­ing wide­ly is more impor­tant than read­ing deeply. That is, until you have to assem­ble that desk from IKEA.

  • Johann Cat says:

    I was hop­ing a stu­dent of this era had writ­ten some­thing about their expe­ri­ence of tak­ing this ENGL 135 course with Auden. Here’s a sub­stan­tial account by Robert Chap­man, who sent out ques­tion­naires to for­mer stu­dents in 1978 and com­piled their views into an arti­cle in the Michi­gan Quar­ter­ly Review. Inter­est­ing­ly, the amount of read­ing is scarce­ly men­tioned (real­ly), though it is dis­cussed by Chap­man briefly (he is the only for­mer stu­dent who does.) Rather, what the stu­dents recount are their expe­ri­ences of Auden as a per­son (demand­ing, but at the same time unusu­al­ly casu­al and free-asso­ci­a­tion­al in class; affa­ble and social out­side). What strikes me is that sev­er­al of the stu­dents said (in 1978, near­ly forty years beyond the class) that they are still pro­cess­ing what they learned from Auden in ways they find tricky to explain. One says he “isn’t ready yet” to describe the effect of the class. That note hints at a qual­i­ty of thought and being that often gets paved over with black asphalt-prac­ti­cal­i­ty in many shal­low, tran­sient-goaled dis­cus­sions of “learn­ing out­comes” now. Not all human­i­ties learn­ing is of short term cash val­ue.

    “Auden in Ann Arbor” [MQR, Vol­ume XVII, Issue: 4, Fall 1978, pp. 507–520] is here:

  • Sarah K. says:

    I think most upper lev­el sur­vey class­es would be near this range (page-wise), since they are try­ing to cov­er a lot of mate­r­i­al, instead of in depth mate­r­i­al. Also, all of my Vic­to­ri­an Lit class­es (upper lev­el grad and grad school) required more pages than that dur­ing the semes­ter. It was gen­er­al­ly one nov­el per week plus crit­i­cism, and Vic­to­ri­an Lit nov­els are quite wordy and usu­al­ly over 500 pages (some clos­er to 1000). I had some semes­ters that between two (grad­u­ate) class­es I was read­ing 1500+ pages per week (I did, how­ev­er, devel­op eye strain that semes­ter). So, I don’t think this is par­tic­u­lar­ly impos­si­ble, but per­haps all lit class­es are a bit sadis­tic?

  • Kate says:

    This is a short­er read­ing list than I was giv­en before start­ing uni­ver­si­ty (Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and Lan­guage) in 1994, so it’s not that reflec­tive of a “bygone age”. I agree the libret­ti are a slight­ly eccen­tric choice, but you can’t talk about “Fate and the indi­vid­ual in Euro­pean Lit­er­a­ture” with­out hav­ing read a chunk of that lit­er­a­ture — oth­er­wise you’d just have to take the lec­tur­er’s opin­ion as gospel. No-one now can hope to have read every­thing impor­tant, but there are still sur­vey cours­es that hope to give you some idea of the breadth of Euro­pean (or at least Eng­lish) lit­er­a­ture over the last few cen­turies.

  • David says:

    this is before the days of tech­nol­o­gy and exter­nal dis­trac­tions though. peo­ple read for fun back then, and this prob­a­bly would­n’t have seemed like such a chore if you were prob­a­bly read­ing works like these for plea­sure any­ways.

  • Michael W. Perry says:

    How unfor­tu­nate that movie mak­ing and record­ing was so much more expen­sive back then. It’d be mar­velous to take that course today as if we were among his stu­dents.

  • William Adams says:

    I’m a lit­tle shocked that you are so shocked. Aside from its idio­syn­crasies (opera libret­ti?), this much read­ing was not beyond the bounds of a upper-lev­el and grad­u­ate course as late as the 1970s. There are some long books here; there are also a num­ber of plays, every one of which can be read in an after­noon. Of course, even at the elite schools, stu­dents did­n’t gen­uine­ly read every­thing on the list; you picked what you thought was more impor­tant or more to your lik­ing and faked oth­ers with notes or skim­ming. You can be sure this was also the case in 1941, when the “elite” were pre­dom­i­nant­ly social elite, not SAT-screened schol­ars. Prep schools can only help so much; most prep­pies were hap­py to take their “gen­tle­man’s Cs.”

  • Biff says:

    Actu­al­ly, Auden’s syl­labus isn’t very dif­fer­ent from the 1989 Euro­pean Lit­er­ary Tra­di­tion course I took as a Fresh­man *sci­ence* major at Yale.

  • Chip says:

    Reminds me of the speech Bob Dylan gave at the Musi­cares awards. The Dai­ly Beast offered this:

    “These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth—there was a prece­dent. For three or four years all I lis­tened to were folk songs. I went to sleep singing folk songs. If you sang ‘John Hen­ry’ as many times as me,” he said, and then quot­ed a stan­za from the tra­di­tion­al folk song, “If you’d have sung that song as many times as I did—you’d have writ­ten ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.”

    Dylan’s muse was what he lis­tened to. Auden’s muse was what he read.

  • Paul Ottaviano says:

    I am a lit­tle dis­tressed at the reac­tion this post is get­ting. Peo­ple are wor­ried about how much all these books would cost, and so on. You should use a list like this to inspire you, or “bum” you out if you have not read many of these books and it both­ers you. Again, per­haps it could inspire you, and, of course, you prob­a­bly have read items he did not include on the list. But “dig in” and enjoy. You bet­ter get going!!!

  • Curtis Adams says:

    Three operas by Wag­n­er as lit­er­a­ture? The music is great but the writ­ing is pret­ty lame. A good writer does­n’t need mag­ic potions.

    The sheer amount of read­ing isn’t over­whelm­ing for a good read­er. At a minute a page, that’s 100 hours of read­ing, or about 1 hour a day for a semes­ter. As the arti­cle men­tions, though, these aren’t throw­away pulp fic­tion and deserve atten­tion and analy­sis. I won­der what Auden taught in the class­room and how he could pick what to cov­er in that lim­it­ed time with such an enor­mous amount of excel­lent and usu­al­ly very deep mate­r­i­al.

  • Nullifidian says:

    “Three operas by Wag­n­er as lit­er­a­ture? The music is great but the writ­ing is pret­ty lame. A good writer doesn’t need mag­ic potions.”

    I hope this is a sub­tle joke. If not, my palm is going to per­ma­nent­ly attached to my face because the mag­ic potion plot is part of the source sto­ry by Got­tfried von Straßburg. It’s like com­plain­ing that the Ring Cycle is too indebt­ed to Norse mythol­o­gy.

  • Tom Bergin says:

    Ken Mil­lar took this course from Auden when he was a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. A few years lat­er, Ken Mil­lar began using the pseu­do­nym Ross Mac­don­ald and start­ed writ­ing the Lew Archer detec­tive nov­els join­ing Dashiell Ham­mett and Ray­mond Chan­dler as one of the mas­ters of the hard-boiled genre. Accord­ing to his biog­ra­ph­er, Tom Nolan, Ken Mil­lar would judge meet­ing W.H. Auden as one of the four or five cru­cial events in his life.

  • Thomas Miller says:

    No cell­phones, TV, Net­flix, face­book (social media of any kind)…sure this list is dense, but with­out the mod­ern dis­trac­tions doable.

  • Thomas Miller says:

    A fol­low up com­ment. I had a Women in Vic­to­ri­an Lit class in col­lege. We had to read a clas­sic Vic­to­ri­an nov­el for each week (Jane Eyre, etc.). I had no prob­lem doing this, how­ev­er, I had not kept up with read­ing Thack­er­ay’s Van­i­ty Fair an 800 page trade paper­back so I sat down and read it straight through the day before class. My room­mate brought din­ner to me from the cafe­te­ria that night.

  • David M. Levine says:

    Since Auden (with Chester Kall­man) did excel­lent singing trans­la­tions of (at very least) “Don Gio­van­ni” (for the old NBC Opera, back in the 1950’s) you can cer­tain­ly bet that Auden knew pre­cise­ly who Da Ponte was (he also talks about in var­i­ous occa­sion­al essays). His use of the com­posers’ names was for the stu­dents’ aid (he had no rea­son to assume that it’d be help­ful to list the libret­tists’ names, since, for the most part, they’re very much NOT the main guys), and in no way demon­strates his “igno­rance” at all. Be seri­ous. Real­ly. It’s very nice you’ve read a lit­tle bit though. And you know the name of at least one of the two real­ly great opera libret­tists, so one should be grate­ful. I sup­pose. But hey.…a lit­tle more respect where it is due.

  • David M. Levine says:

    And oh yeah, except for the Divine Com­e­dy (which I hard­ly think was intend­ed in this con­text to be parsed line-by-line), this is not that impos­ing a list for a good semes­ter’s work. Chal­leng­ing, yes. But impos­si­ble? Hard­ly. It just means a lit­tle less time on the climb­ing wall; sev­er­al few­er occa­sions to be fid­dled with by the wrestling coach.m And my last quib­ble is a big one: no “King Lear???” Well, it WAS the for­ties (ear­ly fifties?), when “Lear” had not yet achieved its cen­tral place in the canon.

  • David M. Levine says:

    If this was at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, you can’t real­ly be talk­ing about “social elites.” Intel­lec­tu­al, yes. Inter­est­ed in learn­ing a lot, yes. But this is, after all, a pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty. One of the great ones, yes. But lack­ing the pre­ten­tious snooti­ness and unthink­ing racism of the “ivy league” schools of the same era.

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