Great Courses: Classics Of British Literature: Part 1, by John Sutherland
One of the more intriguing issues in dealing with this particular course is the way that the author refers to his course as a look at classics in English literature but the course itself is advertised as being about British literature. To be sure, there is a great deal of overlap between the two areas, but they are not identical. The classics discussed here are profound and certainly worthy of serious reading , but they are English classics first and foremost and not necessarily British classics. It would have been honest, for example, for the course to be given a title that reflected the focus on English literature, or for the professor who taught the course to have spent some time including worthwhile literature from outside of England, in Welsh, Scots English or Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, or Manx, or for the instructor to have discussed the Norman French writing of the late Middle Ages as being part of British literature, or for the inclusion of colonial literature in this discussion. Unfortunately this did not happen, and so the person who listens to this course will have to settle for English literature that pretends it is the best in British literature as a whole.
In terms of its contents, the professor covers the first twelve of the total of 48 lectures on the subject contained in this particularly expansive Great Courses collection. Each lecture, as is customary, is thirty minutes long. The course begins with the pessimism and themes of comradeship that one finds in early Anglo-Saxon poetry and the style of poetry that this literature bequeathed to later writers in English. After that the instructor spends two lectures looking at Chaucer’s writing as evidence both of social mobility as well as the author’s own immense cultural sophistication. After this the professor spends a lecture talking about Spencer’s Faerie Queen and the importance of various modes of sophisticated writing like allegory, irony, and symbolism. From this the discussion moves to a look at early English drama and the importance of guilds and the tension between drama and morality that has always characterized the English-speaking world. This focus on drama is continued in a lecture on Marlowe that emphasizes his personal and literary daring, two lectures on Shakespeare that discuss his early writings and mature dramas, and a lecture on Shakespeare’s later rivals like Jonson and Webster and the darkness and wit that they and others brought to Jacobean theater. After this the instructor spends a lecture talking about the beauty of Tyndale’s prose and how it strongly influenced the King James Bible and also the complexities of the metaphysical poets like John Donne.
In looking at this part of the course, I must admit that my own feelings are pretty deeply mixed. On the positive side, the instructor and I have a similar taste in what makes literature great, having a love both for familiar choices like Chaucer and Shakespeare but also more obscure poets and playwrights as well as William Tyndale. Clearly, then, there are a lot of similarities in what we enjoy and appreciate about the spoken and written and performed language. That said, the professor seems to share a common contemporary unseemly interest in matters of prurient sexuality, speculating on Marlowe and Shakespeare and others concerning their own interest in sex, and spending a great deal of time reveling in John Donne’s early love poetry being written about someone who was not Mrs. Donne. This sort of salacious gossiping about texts may encourage people to read for the wrong reasons, but it certainly does not sit easily with the moral importance of literature, something that the professor admits is important and also controversial but an area where he markedly fails here. Likewise, the instructor’s moral biases make his discussion of political matters slanted as well, especially when one considers his intense hostility towards Puritan morality.
 See, for example: