A trio of professors at the University of Oklahoma is team teaching a course designed by none other than the classic British poet W. H. Auden. Auden himself, who passed away more than 40 years ago, was a leading literary figure in the last century but may not even be recognizable in this one.
As a visiting professor at the University of Michigan in 1941-42, Auden taught a
course on “Fate and the Individual in European Literature, which featured 6,000 pages of reading material, and later became known as “the hardest course in the humanities.”
The paper Auden sketched it out on was found in the UM archives about five years ago and posted on the internet. “The course was enormous,” Wilfred McClay writes in an essay distributed by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. “It was as if Auden had put together an idiosyncratic and mainly literary version of a Great Books curriculum and compressed it into a single semester.”
“Beginning with the ancient Greek tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles, the course covered the Roman poet Horace, then St. Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, a bouquet of Shakespeare plays, Pascal, Racine, Blake, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Melville, Kafka, Eliot, and other certifiable greats, tossed in some then-classic scholarship about culture (including Ruth Benedict and C.S. Lewis), then washed it all down with the bubbly delights of nine opera libretti.”
McClay is an historian at the University of Oklahoma. Because of the epic nature of the course, he got together with two other professors there—David Anderson of the English Department and Kyle Harper of the Classics Department (and provost of the university) — who pooled their expertise and taught it as a combined effort.
“The fall semester runs from Homer and Greek tragedy to the Renaissance,” McClay states. “In the spring, we focus on modernity, beginning in the Enlightenment and ending in the mid-twentieth century.”
And students signed up for it! “Colleagues were skeptical that such students could be found, but as soon as the course opened for registration, it filled up,” McClay recounts. “The same thing happened in the second semester, and again in the first semester of the current academic year.”
“Each semester we have raised the ceiling for course enrollment; every semester we’ve had to turn away students.”
By the way, if you never experienced the poetry of W. H. Auden, here is a sample, and a seasonal one at that:
Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last;
Nurses to the graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.