I decided to study English because I’ve always enjoyed reading, but felt that the scope and periods of texts we studied in school didn’t cover all the awesome stuff that’s out there, and I love the way novels can also encompass science, maths and art meaning I could still learn about other areas! The thing I enjoy most about English is definitely the infinite choices we have! I studied the earliest ever English poem, and the following week wrote on Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, there are really very few limits on what you can choose providing you make a good case for it! My best experience so far would have to be my end of term essay on Darwinism and evolution in children’s literature, where I had great feedback from my tutor, and really felt like I’d written something interesting and worth being proud of!
In some ways I always knew I was going to study English – I’ve always loved reading. I considered History, Philosophy and Modern Languages as well, but the first two come into English anyway, and I really hate grammar exercises. One of the great things about the Oxford course in particular is being challenged to read all sorts of things I wouldn’t have picked up of my own accord – and really liking them!
Reading To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf on my gap year, and having no one I could to about it, made me realise that I wanted to really get my teeth into talking about books with tutors and students who care about it as much as I do.
My best experiences have probably been the stuff my subject group has organised: reading Beowulf in the woods, a Dickens Christmas party, revision coffee dates, punting and poetry….
Why study English? It's the greedy student's subject; that student who wants to taste meaty history, cultural-studies, psychology, science, and the arts all at once. It's a course which says "Oh, you like this weird aspect of this obscure thing? SURE! Use it for an exam topic!" It’s a course that lets you whirl through the canon, but pause, and truly get to grips with that book, or poem that sang to you. You dictate your essay questions. You dictate which books you read. Exciting, yes, but for me, more exciting yet was discovering those authors to which I had previously turned my nose up. How else would I have discovered the twisted, sardonic voice of Browning, or the strange beauty of Anglo Saxon verse? So, in Hilary term, when my friends chuckled to see me tumbling around the quad shouting Anglo Saxon quotes into the sky (it's the only way I can learn it!) with a massive grin, I can only shrug in response. English makes me happy. And at Oxford, I get to pursue those things which make me happiest every day.
Initially I was unsure whether I’d chosen the right subject, but I’m certain that I have. Thanks to the quality of the teaching here, I find that I'm much more sensitive to texts and their nuances. It's been very rewarding to be able to follow my own interests; this year, I've done a paper entirely on Oscar Wilde, and this term, I'm studying Thomas Nashe and the brutal world of Elizabethan pamphleteering. There are specialists of every kind here. I have a friend studying the language of the Internet, while another is studying the short stories of different South-American writers.
First year coursework opens your eyes to exciting approaches to literary theory and linguistic analysis (you will never read a newspaper the same way ever again), whilst the period papers plunge you headfirst into the repressed, hysterical, gothic Victorian period. You grapple with beautiful Anglo Saxon poetry and prose, and simultaneously study the pioneers of Modern literature, right up to the present day! Year two leads you further down the canon, from Medieval mystics, Chaucer, and Skelton’s dream visions, to the heaving crowds swarming the newly erected commercial theatres of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, and ‘Criminal-Catching’ guides of Robert Greene. Shakespeare cannot, of course, go ignored, and has a coursework module to himself, but come third year, the topic you choose for your dissertation is entirely up to you…
With this course, the cannon is your oyster. Yes, the course may – on the website – seem traditional. But in practise, the time period markers (e.g. 1350-1450) are a beckoning gesture, saying “come and read anything in me and write on it!” Your tutor hasn’t put that interesting writer or pamphlet you heard about on their reading list? No matter! Express your interest and you can sculpt your own question; your own topic; your own texts to compare. The canon is yours for the picking, and Oxford’s endless resources are the perfect place to satisfy any avenue of inquiry.
Good English Literature related books (* for especially recommended)
- David Lodge - The Art of Fiction *
- Terry Eagleton - How to read Literature *
- John Fuller - Who is Ozymandias? And other puzzles in poetry *
- George Orwell - Why I write
- Harold Bloom - The Western Canon
- Mullan - How Novels Work
When it comes to English, you're not exactly limited on reading material. Whatever you mention in your personal statement, read several times - and read it thoroughly.
I had two interviews, each focusing around a passage of text which had been given to me to look through beforehand. We discussed these (one was a Dickens extract, the other featured two poems, one by Byron and one by a modern poet). Then we talked about what I was currently studying - by the time you get there your personal statement is a little out of date so they made sure we were able to talk about what I was working on at that point (The Tempest, Keats, tragedy) rather than what I'd been working on several months before. I found I was quite able to steer the discussion topic myself, talking about my extended project on Jane Austen and other ideas which occurred to me. It didn't feel like I was being examined or tested, more like I was just having a nice conversation with some people who know a lot about literature and who are always pleased to meet a young person who shares that interest, even if they don't yet have the experience.
Applicants that might be offered a place are invited for interview in December. See English interviews for more information.
Make sure you read the official prospectus entry for the course which contains entry requirements, full course structure, additional interesting resources and full details of the application process.
If you're going to apply, you'll want to check which Oxford colleges offer this course.
You might also find it helpful to hear from students studying English and Modern Languages, History and English or Classics and English (or even consider applying for those courses!).