Reading/Discussion Questions

"Annus Mirabilis"

  1. What is the political significance of Dryden's claim that the Great Fire of London began in "mean buildings" (858)? of his likening the spread of the Great Fire to the "mighty mischiefs" of a "dire usurper" born in "some petty village" (849-53)?
  2. What are the characteristics of the empire that Dryden envisions the "empress" (845) London sitting at the center of? What kind of an empire is this? Why does he liken this empire to that of the Roman empire under Augustus?

"Mac Flecknoe"

  1. Dryden was a great verse satirist, and "Mac Flecknoe" is one of his best verse satires. What is satire, and in what specific ways is Dryden satirizing his rival Shadwell here?
  2. Satire depends on the literary device of irony, saying one thing and meaning another. An especially common form for satire in the Restoration and Augustan periods was the mock heroic or mock epic, treating something trivial in an inflated and grandiose way as a means of exposing its triviality. "MacFlecknoe" is a mock epic laden with irony. Explain how these devices work in the following passages: the likening of Flecknoe to Augustus (3-6), the likening of Shadwell to Arion (43-50), the likening of Shadwell to Hannibal (112-17).
  3. The poem contains many dirty jokes and bawdy puns about sex and shit. Explain the joke in lines 98-103.

The Way of the World

  1. Opening scenes of plays often seem on the surface to be unimportant, concerned with unimportant events and/or minor characters. When you finish the play look at this scene again. In what ways does this scene--in terms of theme, image, and events--set up the play's events and concerns? (You should be thinking here beyond such basic levels of plot and characterization as "we learn that Mirabell has been been pretending to court Lady Wishfort.")
  2. The play contains many references to clothes, make-up, etc., especially when Lady Wishfort is on stage (Act III, Scene 5 is a good example). What does Congreve seem to be saying about this society through these references?
  3. Act IV, Scene 5, called the "proviso scene," is the play's most famous. Although Millamant and Mirabell are talking about marriage, they use language that at least doesn't seem to be the language of love. What images and metaphors does their language contain, and what does it tell us about the marriage they are constructing?
  4. What is the meaning of the play's title as spoken by Fainall in V.11? Is Mirabell's meaning in V.13 different, and if so, which one does Congreve want us to adopt?

"An Essay on Criticism," Spectator 62, and Lives of the Poets (Cowley)

  1. Does Pope contradict himself when he praises rules (1.88-91 and 1.130-40) and urges imitation of the ancients at (1.118-27) on the one hand, but criticizes critics for their "dull receipts" (1.100-117), praises the "nameless graces which no methods teach" (1.141-168), and lampoons those who stick to rules (2.259-284) on the other?
  2. Based on Pope's distinction between true and false wit (2.289-304) and his discussion of Restoration literature (2.526-559), what do you think his assessment of The Way of the World would have been?
  3. Paraphrase the definitions of wit offered by Dryden, Locke, Addison, Pope, and Johnson, respectively, noting major similarities and differences among them.
  4. Pope discusses an important stylistic concept called "decorum" at 2.318-23. Using this context only, define decorum, then compare your definition with that given under "Genre, Decorum" in the glossary of "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology" at the back of the Norton Anthology. Locate and explain one other rule in Pope's poem that is related to decorum.
  5. What does Pope believe should be the characteristics of the critic? If Pope read Johnson's essay on Cowley and Metaphysical Wit, would he consider Johnson a good critic?

The Rape of the Lock

  1. Like "MacFlecknoe," The Rape of the Lock is a mock epic. Locate and explain an example from the poem. (Don't use one that is pointed out in the notes unless you go considerably beyond what the notes say.)
  2. The note to 1.138 (one of the poem's most famous lines) explains that some critics believe "Bibles" is a misprint for "bibelots." What effect would this change have on the meaning of the line? Why, from the standpoint of meaning, do you think most critics reject this change?
  3. In Canto 2, Ariel says that he knows something bad is going to happen, but he doesn't know what it will be. At 2.105-110, he lists several pairs of possibilities. What characterizes each pair ("stain her honor or her new brocade," etc.), and what point is Pope making about this class of people?
  4. Summarize Belinda's speech in 4.147-176. There's a double meaning in the final couplet; what is it?
  5. At the end of the poem, only the Muse (and the poet) see Belinda's lock rise upward into the heavens. Is the praise offered in these final 30 lines sincere or ironic? Support your answer with evidence from the poem.

"An Essay on Man" and Spectator 519

  1. The image of the Great Chain of Being dominates the poem. Using only Pope's poem, explain what the Great Chain is, and what it says about the 18th century's view of Nature, God, and Man's relationship to each. How does Addison's view of the Great Chain compare to Pope's?
  2. In the poem's opening lines, Pope compares "this scene of man" to a wild "where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot" and a garden "tempting with forbidden fruit" (7-8). What is this a reference to? Why, given the subject matter of the poem, is it appropriate that Pope see the world as a garden with tempting fruit?
  3. Like Paradise Lost, "An Essay on Man" is a theodicy--it seeks to "vindicate the ways of God to Man" (16). Theodicies have to explain why, if God is omniscient and beneficent, evil and disorder--natural disasters and bad people--exist in the world. What is Pope's answer, especially in sections 5 and 10, to this question?

"A Modest Proposal"

  1. Swift uses language and ideas drawn from economics and animal husbandry ("breeding") throughout the essay. How does this contribute to his satiric purpose? Demonstrate with an example from the text.
  2. In addition to attacking England for its treatment of the Irish people, Swift (who was a clergyman) lampoons the rational, scientific, mathematical approach to the solution of social problems. Provide an example and explain what Swift thinks is wrong with this approach.
  3. What is surprising about the claim that "I can think of no objection that will probably be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom" (Norton 1:2185)?

Songs of Innocence and Experience

"The Lamb"

  1. A central issue for each of the Songs is identifying the characteristics of the speaker. What is the answer to the speaker's question? Explain why is it not directly stated by taking into account the characteristics of the speaker.

"The Chimney Sweeper"

  1. Are we as readers to accept the sentiments of the speaker of the Innocence version in lines 7-8 and 24, and those of the Angel in lines 19-20?
  2. Why is this a Song of Innocence? What is the difference between this speaker and the speaker of the Experience version of this poem? What social/political point is Blake making in these two poems?

"The Tyger"

  1. "The Tyger" is one of the most argued-over poems in all of English literature. Although the speaker of the poem is clearly afraid of the tyger, it doesn't necessarily follow that the speaker's view of the tyger is correct or that we are supposed to adopt the speaker's view. Consider for a moment the following facts: 1) Blake is at one level the "maker" of the Tyger, and he is also a sort of blacksmith in his artist's role as etcher of the poem. 2) Beast imagery was commonly associated with the French Revolution by its critics, but Blake was a supporter of the Revolution. 3) The mythological figures of Icarus (line 7--wanting to fly, he built wings of wax but flew too near the sun) and Prometheus (line 8--he was punished eternally for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man) were positive figures for the Romantics, who identified with them as ambitious and rebellious artists. How does each of these facts affect your interpretation of the poem?


  1. To "charter" means to grant special rights or privileges. In Blake's day, charters were granted by the reigning monarch and usually involved economic privileges--for example, the exclusive right to make and sell a certain commodity. (This meaning survives today; think of a chartered bus or plane.) What is Blake trying to say by referring to the "charter'd streets" and the "charter'd Thames"?
  2. What sort of picture does Blake give us of London? What are its people like? What activities occur there? Be specific.

Preface to Lyrical Ballads, "Simon Lee," and "We Are Seven"

  1. Wordsworth says the Preface was written to explain what he was trying to do in the poems that make up the Lyrical Ballads and why he was trying to do it. Summarize his goals and reasons in the categories of subject matter and language (pp. 141-47). How does Wordsworth differ in these categories from an 18th-century poet like Pope?
  2. What is Wordsworth's definition of a poet, especially in the poet's relation to other men and to society? What are the political/social implications of Wordsworth's view?
  3. How can poetry be "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" if it "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility"?
  4. Do "Simon Lee" and "We Are Seven" fulfill Wordsworth's precepts in the Preface, or are there important differences? Provide specific examples.

"Tintern Abbey"

  1. What is Wordsworth's view of nature? What does he say is its relation to him specifically as an adult and to human beings in general?
  2. What language and imagery dominates the poem's final section? Why does Wordsworth do this?
  3. Does this poem fulfill the precepts of the Preface? How does it compare on this score to "Simon Lee" and "We Are Seven"?

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

  1. In what ways does Coleridge's poem differ from Wordsworth's contributions to the Lyrical Ballads? In what ways is it similar?
  2. Why is it significant that the Mariner tells his tale to a wedding-guest?
  3. Why does the Mariner shoot the albatross? What must he do to put an end to the curse? What lesson does he learn from his experiences?

"Intimations Ode"

  1. Summarize the movement of the speaker's state of mind in the first four stanzas of the poem and describe the relationship between the speaker and nature.
  2. Explain Wordsworth's argument in stanza 5 about where the intimations of our immortality come from.
  3. Sight/vision is a recurring image in the poem. Explain the function of this image, using specific examples from the poem to clarify your view. (Seeing means more here than just looking at something, in other words.)


  1. Coleridge wrote "Dejection" after hearing the first four stanzas of Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode" (of which there are several verbal echoes). What is his response to those first four stanzas? How does Coleridge's mood at the end of this poem compare to Wordsworth's mood at the end of the "Intimations Ode"?
  2. What role does the Aeolian harp play, both literally and symbolically, in relation to the speaker in "Dejection"?

Frankenstein (vol. 1)

  1. How does Mary Shelley's Introduction to the novel compare, both in terms of style and content, to the Preface, which was actually written by her husband, the poet Percy Shelley?
  2. What parallels exist between Mary's story of the creation of Frankenstein and the events of the novel itself?
  3. What connections are there between Walton and Victor, Walton's story and Victor's? Why does Shelley use this elaborate frame narrative rather than simply starting the novel with Victor's story or with where she tells it originally began (chapter 5)? In other words, what purposes other than suspense or dramatic situation or background does the frame narrative serve?

Frankenstein (vols. 2-3) and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Canto 3: Waterloo, Napoleon)

  1. The story of the De Lacey family and the monster's "stay" with them probably struck you as wildly improbable, clumsily handled, and needlessly detailed. True--and yet Shelly presumably had her reasons. What do you think these reasons were? What, in other words, are the functions of this story within the story? In what ways are its plot, characters, and themes related to the main action?
  2. What do we learn about Victor's character from his misinterpretation of the monster's threat that he will be with him on his wedding-night?
  3. Shelley closes the novel by returning to the framing narrative. In what ways do the events of pp. 145-56 influence our interpretation of the main action? (For example, do they increase or decrease our sympathies for Victor?)
  4. Based on the Norton editors' definition of the Byronic hero (Norton 2:480), is Napoleon a Byronic hero? is Victor Frankenstein? Is Mary Shelley's view of the Byronic hero sympathetic or critical?

"A Defence of Poetry"

  1. How do Shelley's views of the role of the imagination and the function of the poet compare to Wordsworth's?
  2. How does Shelley defend poetry against the charge that it is immoral?
  3. Shelley says poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." In what sense are poets legislators? Why are they unacknowledged?

"To a Sky-lark"

  1. The speaker says the skylark is "Like a Poet" (36). In what ways? Provide specific examples from the first forty lines.
  2. Is the poem's view of poetry and poets in keeping with the ideas expressed in the "Defence"? Link specific passages from both works.

"Ode to the West Wind"

  1. Why does the speaker call the wind "Destroyer and Preserver"?
  2. What kinds of imagery from the natural world dominate the poem? What do these images have in common? Why are they appropriate for the poem's content and the speaker's mood?
  3. How do the speaker's state of mind and his relationship to the wind, what he is calling upon the wind to do for him, compare to speaker and wind in Coleridge's "Dejection"?
  4. Is the poem's final line a banal, Hallmark-greeting-card sentiment, or is Shelley saying something profound? Does this poem, like "To Wordsworth" and "A Song: Men of England," have anything to do with politics?

Keats's Letters

  1. What does Keats mean when he says that a poet is a "camelion" and has "no Identity" (836)? Why does Keats see his view of the poet as different from what he calls "the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime" (836)? How does his view of the poet's relationship to his subjects and to other people compare to Percy Shelley's in "A Defence of Poetry" (Norton 2:759)?

"Ode to a Nightingale"

  1. In stanza 4, the depressed speaker asserts that he will join the singing nightingale by flying "on the viewless wings of Poesy." Is the speaker able to do this in the remainder of the poem? Is this poem a celebration of what poetry and the imagination can do, or a complaint for what they can't?
  2. In the letter to his brothers written about a year and a half before this poem, Keats said that the chief characteristic of a great poet is what he called "Negative Capability": "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Does Keats (not the speaker) exhibit this characteristic here?
  3. Does this poem fulfill Keats's axioms that poetry should "surprise by a fine excess" and that its "touches of Beauty should never be half way" (833)? Give specific supporting examples from the poem.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

  1. What is a "still unravish'd bride" (1)? What is odd about this expression?
  2. What scenes are portrayed on the urn? What is the speaker's attitude towards these scenes?
  3. Does the poem ultimately celebrate the timelessness of art or the dynamic, changing nature of life? In other words, is this, like "Ode to a Nightingale," a poem about what poetry (art) can do, or what it can't? Use evidence from the poem in your answer.

"Ode on Melancholy"

  1. What does the speaker say people should do when they are depressed? what should they not do?
  2. Why does Melancholy have her "sovran shrine" in "the very temple of Delight"?

In Memoriam

  1. How does the speaker regard nature at various points in the poem? Where is his view of nature at its bleakest? Provide evidence from the poem to support your answer, and be sure to cover the whole poem.
  2. Summarize the changes in the speaker's mood over the course of the entire poem, noting those sections where you see a signficant shift and explaining why.
  3. Summarize what happens in section 95, the famous "By night we lingered on the lawn." What makes this section so important in the speaker's effort to come to terms with Hallam's death?
  4. Like Paradise Lost or Pope's "Essay on Man," this poem is a theodicy: it tries to explain the ways of God to man. In particular, the question here is how to reconcile the death of Hallam, so young, so talented, so beloved, with the existence of a wise and merciful and beneficent god. Why does the speaker reject Pope's view that God's concern is with human beings as a species rather than with individual humans? How does the speaker finally resolve the problem of the purpose of Hallam's tragic, early death in the Epilogue?

Arnold's Poetry

  1. What is the speaker's view of his society in these poems? Does his relationship with his lover in "Dover Beach" offer an alternative to this?
  2. Like the conversation poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge, "Dover Beach" contains a turn in which the speaker addresses another person. How does the effect this has on the speaker of "Dover Beach" compare to the effect it has on the speakers of "Tintern Abbey" and "Dejection"?
  3. Citing specific examples from the poems, characterize Arnold's view of the self in relation to others and to society as a whole.
  4. How does Arnold's response to spiritual crisis compare to Tennyson's?

Aurora Leigh

  1. Aurora paints a stark contrast between herself and her aunt. Describe the differences, using quotations from the poem, in their looks, temperaments, and opinions about the appropriate role--and consequently the appropriate education--for women.
  2. Romney is idealistic, progressive, and concerned for the welfare of others. Does he share Aurora's view about women? Provide evidence from the poem to support your answer.
  3. What is remarkable about Aurora's statement that "I too have my vocation,--work to do" (2:455)? If Aurora is in some sense a mouthpiece for the views of Browning, how does Browning's presentation of herself as an author compare to Mary Shelley's in her Introduction to Frankenstein?
  4. What are Aurora's views about Victorian society and about the role of the artist (poet) in it? What should poets not write about? What should they write about? Why?

Great Expectations (ch. 1-19)

  1. Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, a story especially common in 19th-century novels in which a young man from the provinces grows up, comes of age, develops an identity, selects a vocation. What events and information in the first chapter are especially important thematically to these issues of identity and vocation, and why?
  2. What is "the smart without a name" (92)? What lessons about the world does Pip learn at Satis House?
  3. The "affecting tragedy of George Barnwell" (144) runs through Pip's head (especially on 144-48), increasing his feelings of guilt for the attack on Mrs. Joe. Using the information provided in the notes, explain the connections between this "affecting tragedy" and Great Expectations, both in terms of plot and (especially) theme. What, in other words, are the functions of this allusion?

Great Expectations (ch. 20-39)

  1. This is a novel about what it means to be a member of a particular social class, and especially about differences among social classes. In particular, the novel asks what it means to be a gentleman. For one thing, one must, presumably, look the part by wearing the right clothes. Looking at the passages on 173-78 and 244-47, what does Dickens seem to be saying about clothes and the gentleman?
  2. Education and the ability to read are also important to issues of identity and class in this novel. At one point, Pip says he is to do "all the shining deeds of the young Knight of romance, and marry the Princess" (253). Looking at the context of the passage, and taking all of Pip's actions into account, what does this tell us about Pip's reading ability, his ability to understand the events in his life?
  3. After one of his visits to Mr. Jaggers's office, Pip notes that his life has been "encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime" (284). List at least three examples of this. Choose one and explain what you think its purpose is: how does it connect to the novel's larger themes, concerns, questions? what social point, if any, does Dickens seem to be making in his use of your example?

Great Expectations (ch. 40- Appendix A)

  1. Wemmick is the embodiment of the belief that "a man's home is his castle." Does Dickens endorse this belief in the novel? In other words, how is Wemmick's separation of his home life from his work life presented? what does Dickens seem to think of it?
  2. What specific things must Pip do to achieve a full understanding of who he is, and why is each significant?
  3. Which ending do you prefer--the original (Appendix A) or the revised one that actually ends the novel--and why?

"Fra Lippo Lippi"

  1. Summarize what Lippi says in the first eleven lines of "Fra Lippo Lippi" (lines 8-11 are the toughest to figure out, but don't omit them).
  2. What is the Prior's view of the purpose of art, why does Lippi reject it, and what is his own view of its purpose?
  3. Lippi's theory of art is essentially Browning's. How does his theory compare to that expressed by Elizabeth Browning in Aurora Leigh? Would she have condemned her husband for writing about the past rather than the present?
  4. Do Aurora Leigh and "Fra Lippo Lippi" have anything in common, in terms of the kinds of stories they tell and ways they tell them, with Great Expectations?

The Importance of Being Earnest and the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

  1. In his opening exchange with Lane, Algernon admits that he doesn't play the piano accurately: "Anyone can play accurately--but I play with wonderful expression." In what ways is this remark appropriate not only for the contents of the play itself, but for what Wilde is trying to achieve?
  2. What is the pun in the play's title? What is the importance of being e(a)rnest?
  3. "We live," says Lady Bracknell, "in an age of surfaces" (1703). Does the play criticize or celebrate this fact? Is it more or less critical of its upper-class world than Congreve's The Way of the World?
  4. Be sure to read the description of Aestheticism in Norton 2:1612-13. How well do the statements of Wilde's Preface to Dorian Gray match with that description? Is Earnest in accord with these statements?

"Tradition and the Individual Talent"

  1. What does Eliot think is the relationship between "tradition" and the individual artist? what effect does a new work of art have on past works?
  2. What is Eliot's view of Romantic poetic theory, in particular of Wordsworth's and Keats's? Give specific examples.


  1. The speaker asks many questions throughout the poem, most of which concern himself. How would you characterize the tone in which these questions are asked (are they, for example, defiant? uncertain? ironic? etc.)?
  2. The speaker says "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be" (111). What does the speaker nonetheless have in common with Hamlet? What character in Hamlet does he seem to identify with?
  3. The poem contains several references to Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" (Norton 1:1420). Read that poem and explain the purpose of Eliot's allusions. How do Marvell's speaker and Eliot's compare, particularly in their relationships to women?

"The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

  1. How does this poem compare to "Tintern Abbey"?

"The Wild Swans at Coole"

  1. The speaker insists that "All's changed" (15) in the nineteen years since he began counting the swans. How so?
  2. Why does the speaker count the swans? What is significant about there being "nine-and-fifty" of them?
  3. How does the way this poem communicates the speaker's feelings compare to "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"? (Is it more or less direct? Are the language and imagery more or less allusive? Is the mood established more or less directly?)

"Sailing to Byzantium"

  1. What is the poem's view of the power of art, especially in relation to life? How does this view compare to Keats's in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

"Among School Children"

  1. Why is it appropriate that the setting of this poem is a schoolroom and that the speaker is "among school children"?
  2. What does the speaker think about human efforts to understand life's profound questions through philosophy? religion? art?
  3. What is the point of the two questions in the final four lines? What is the speaker implying about the relationship between nature and art? between form and content?

"Modern Fiction" and To the Lighthouse (Part 1)

  1. How do Woolf's techniques for telling this story compare to Dickens's techniques in Great Expectations? Are they in keeping with her views in "Modern Fiction" about the appropriate content and form for the novel?
  2. Mrs. Ramsey is reading the fairy tale "The Fisherman and His Wife" to James. In this story, a poor fisherman catches a flounder who claims to be an enchanted prince and thus asks to be returned to the sea. The fisherman does so, but when he returns home and tells his wife, she orders him back to sea to ask the flounder for a hut to replace the pig-sty in which they live. The fisherman obeys his wife, and the flounder grants the wish, but the wife isn't satisfied--she keeps sending her husband back to the flounder, first with a request for a stone castle, then with demands to be made king, emperor, Pope, and, finally, God. The flounder grants all these requests except the last one; when the fisherman returns home, his wife is back in the pig-sty. This story is said to be "like a bass accompanying a tune, which now and then ran up unexpectedly in the melody" (56). If the "melody" is the main plot of the novel and Mrs. Ramsey's thoughts, in what ways does this fairy tale "accompany" the melody? In other words, what is the relationship between the events and themes of the fairy tale and those of the novel, and what is Woolf's purpose in juxtaposing them?

To the Lighthouse (Parts 2 and 3)

  1. Lily sees the Ramseys as "symbols of marriage" (72). If so, what portrait does the novel give us of marriage and the position of women within marriage? Consider especially the Ramseys' extraordinary silent conversations across the dinner table and afterward when they are alone in the same room, he reading and she knitting.
  2. What is the thematic or symbolic importance of Lily's painting (consider especially pp. 18-19, 52-53, 147, 157-59, 193, 208-09)? What is Woolf's view of the woman artist?
  3. What is the thematic or symbolic importance of the lighthouse (consider especially the final sections of the novel)?

Happy Days

  1. Winnie's speech is peppered with allusions and partial quotations from other works of literature. On p. 2245 she is unable to remember fully two lines from Paradise Lost. Look up that passage in volume 1 of the Norton. Who's speaking, and what is the context and tone? Why has Beckett included this reference? Is there anything significant about what Winnie can remember from these lines and what she cannot? Notice, too, that the lines that follow in Paradise Lost are the ones Mary Shelley used as the epigraph to Frankenstein. How does Shelley's use of this passage compare to Beckett's? Winnie's speech to Adam's and to the monster's?
  2. What portrait do we get of human relationships, both Winnie and Willie's and that of the last couple they've seen, in the play?
  3. In a recent review of a stage adaptation of one of Beckett's novels, David Richards of the New York Times wrote: "Beckett's characters live in a fragile, uncertain world. They try to hold things together with language, by talking, and talking incessantly, about themselves and about the world. But since language is itself fragile and uncertain, they can never be sure that their efforts will succeed. Just in case, though, they keep on talking." Is this an apt description of Happy Days?