Welcome to Downing! We hope you find the following advice helpful in preparing to commence your English studies with us in October.

Please use the suggestions below to prepare yourself over the summer. You should read as many of the suggested texts as you can before the beginning of term. This list - though not mandatory reading - is designed to help you hone your critical and interpretive skills while building a depth of contextual understanding of the periods under study.

Your principal papers during your first year are ‘English Literature and its contexts 1300-1550’, ‘English Literature and its contexts, 1660-1870’, and ‘Shakespeare’. 

It is a good idea to spend some time before your arrival developing your background knowledge of the foundational texts of Western literature: Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Homer’s Odyssey (we recommend Robert Fitzgerald’s Vintage Classics translation); and Virgil’s Aeneid (in the Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics editions). If you haven’t done much early literature before, then reading Dante’s Divine Comedy (in translations by Robin Kirkpatrick or Clive James) would be useful. Please also read as many as you can of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (in the Riverside Chaucer, or the edition edited by Jill Mann). Shakespeare figures in all parts of the course, and at the end of Part I we will expect you to have read the majority of the plays and the sonnets, so getting started on reading more of his works is crucial.

The following works of context and criticism are suggested to help you prepare ahead of the beginning of term. You may wish to purchase copies of the reference texts, most of which can be sourced fairly cheaply second-hand:

The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 4th edn (2015)

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 3rd edn (1993

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976)

Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem (2006)

Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1989)

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton Classics Edition (2013)

Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 3rd edn (2009)

Robert Barnard, A Short History of English Literature, 2nd edition (1994)

J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and Their Work : Middle English Literature and Its Background 1100-1500 (1982)

Peter Widdowson, The Palgrave Guide to English Literature and its Contexts 1500–2000 (2004)

Since the terms at Cambridge are short and busy, it is always a good idea to read as many of the long works outside term as you can; it is much easier to write a good essay on a book that you have read more than once. Mark key passages and try to discipline yourself to make notes about a book after reading it, commenting on the things that struck you, perhaps about its plot, characterisation, or symbolic level. Ask yourself what seems to have caught the author’s eye, what the themes are, and what you consider the strengths and weaknesses of the book/author. You will be amazed at how effectively such notes will recall the book to you later. Note the date of publication or composition of a work and try to place it in the writer’s development and in relation to other contemporary books and relevant historical events. Try to buy editions with introductions and examine the annotation; especially with texts of the 16th–18th centuries, unannotated editions or those with irrelevant annotation will handicap you.

Partly with the examinations in mind, your supervisors will suggest that you look at certain writers and works on a week-by-week basis, but there is no actual syllabus. You have the opportunity to become as immersed in and knowledgeable about each period as you would like. If you find that you enjoy a particular book, read more by that author. If you become interested in a theme, compare the way in which it is handled by several different authors. Anything you read from a period that you enjoy will enhance your appreciation of the period papers, so if you develop a particular interest in an author, genre, period or style, follow your enthusiasm. Read and absorb as much by (and about) your favourite authors as time permits, and never hesitate to ask us if you would like further suggestions or reading guidance.

Detailed reading lists are sent out at the beginning of July. If you have not received your detailed reading list direct from your Director of Studies (DoS), please contact us as soon as possible.

If you have further enquiries relating to the commencement of your English studies at Downing, you can contact us via e-mail (english@dow.cam.ac.uk). We look forward to meeting you in October.