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The study of English at Trinity enables students to explore the most far-reaching of questions about what it means to be human, to exist in the world and to share this world with other people. We believe, though, that these questions are inseparable from the rustles and shifts of particular words as they are deployed in poetry, prose and drama. The close study of literary craft allows us to make these connections between the words that we routinely employ, and the things that matter most to us. It also provides an excellent basis for a wide range of careers fostering interpretative skills, creative thought and lucid writing. Above all, we believe that reading, discussing and writing about literature can be a source of tremendous pleasure, all the more so when we do these things together.

Course Details

Course length: 3 Years
Typical offer: A*AA
Preferred A-Level subjects: English Literature or English Literature and Language essential
Assessment Format: ELAT (90 minutes)


What is it like to study English at Trinity?

For every student, the study of English at Cambridge involves a balance between pursuing his or her own interests and being guided in new directions.  At Trinity, we frequently teach our students in one-on-one supervisions, but we also teach in pairs and in small groups. Our teaching aims to help you combine the pursuit of your individual interests with exposure to new and complementary works. This also allows us to help you develop analytical skills and a sophisticated and elegant style of writing. In recent years, we have helped our students develop independent work on topics including: monsters in Renaissance literature; laughter in courtly romance; the seaside in twentieth-century writing; photography and tragedy; and the acoustic experience of novel reading.

A diversity of approaches.

There is no single approach to the study of English that underpins our methods or ethos. We expose you to a range of critical strategies while encouraging you to develop an expansively critical attitude of your own. Our emphasis remains on the particular words on the page, but the tools needed to make sense of these words are always changing. This might involve acquiring detailed historical knowledge, making illustrative comparisons with painting or music, or developing an approach enriched by the reading of philosophy.

Experimenting in the classroom.

We enjoy experimenting with our teaching approaches as much as we enjoy encouraging you to be bold and innovative with your writing. While each member of the teaching staff has special interests, we delight in wandering beyond our specialisms and making connections across the entire spectrum of English literature. In recent years we have co-taught classes, and taught others while walking around Cambridge. Our students have been exposed to alternative viewpoints by studying poetry with practising poets, and Shakespeare on stage and screen with actors, performance artists and film critics.

Using the College’s history.

While Trinity has been renowned for its traditions of scientific excellence since the days of Bacon and Newton, its former students also include a litany of outstanding writers: George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, Lord Byron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Vladimir Nabokov, Thom Gunn, and nearer the present now, Jonathan Coe and Anjali Joseph. We are proud of this tradition and keen to share it with students who appreciate studying literature in this inspiring environment. We enjoy taking students to the Wren Library and showing them some of the treasures from its collection as a way of thinking beyond the printed pages of modern editions: how might our approach to a handwritten manuscript be distinctive? how different would it be to read a book that was two inches or two feet in length? Some students discover a love for working with rare books, and in recent years have used the resources of the Wren to write essays on Dryden’s libretti and eighteenth-century adaptations of Shakespeare.

Enriching the study of English beyond the classroom.

As well as the shelves of the Wren, we have the resources to organise a series of activities that supplement the study of English at Trinity in exciting ways. In recent years we have organised trips to art galleries, to Stratford-upon-Avon (to see a Shakespeare play performed by the RSC), and to significant literary locations in and near Cambridge, such as the village of Little Gidding.  We have also run reading groups that provide venues for discussing poetry and fiction outside the classroom, and opportunities for students to pursue their own creative ambitions in writing poetry and prose.

Who teaches English at Trinity?

Most of the teaching at Trinity is undertaken by four Fellows (College lecturers): Sean Curran, Anna-Maria Hartmann, Michael D. Hurley, and Anne Toner. These four also serve as Directors of Studies – the person who helps you choose and organise your particular path through the undergraduate course. Angela Leighton (Senior Research Fellow) and Adrian Poole (Emeritus Professor) play a significant role in the life of English at Trinity too, as do the College’s postdoctoral students (Junior Research Fellows): currently, Clare Walker Gore, Allison Neale, Dan Sperrin, and Jitka Stollova.

Sean Curran

I am a historian of music and literature, and of their theories, material supports, and social practices. My publications and current research interests address an array of topics from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, with an emphasis on songs, texts, books, and liturgies from Britain and France. My scope of practice as a teacher extends further still. Students working with me in the Music Tripos have written on subjects ranging from musical inscriptions on Ancient Greek tombstones to Middle English lyrics in their manuscript contexts, to the musical analysis and source-criticism of Bach’s Mass in B-minor, to the archival history of émigré scholars in the Second World War, to comparative approaches to the notion of verisimilitude in nineteenth-century opera and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Students working with me on the medieval paper at Part I of the English Tripos will encounter Green Knights, visionary women, lovelorn heroes, and — my favourite bit! — real medieval manuscripts housed in Trinity’s Wren Library. Elsewhere in the English Tripos, students working with me for the Practical Criticism and Critical Practice papers might undertake comparative work that pairs medieval authors with theories and texts more modern — reading Langland’s Piers Plowman alongside Orwell’s Animal Farm, say, or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde alongside Seth’s The Golden Gate. In my work as a teacher, I especially enjoy introducing students to new skills and materials for study that they may not have encountered before. Whether that means learning a new critical theory and how to think with it well, or learning to read medieval handwriting and to understand the physical structure of manuscripts — whatever is necessary to the task at hand —  there is an enjoyment and value to be found in identifying a literary or musical problem, then selecting and honing the critical tools necessary for solving it. Those tools, as well as the musical and literary phenomena we work them on, can belong to us all.

Anna-Maria Hartmann

I teach practical criticism & critical practice, Tragedy, and English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, including Shakespeare.  I love the excitement and international flair of the early modern period.  It was the time of Aldus Manutius’ printing house in Venice, the translation of the King James Bible, and George Sandy’s Virginian Ovid (the beginning of American literature?).  It was then that all the world became a stage inside that magical wooden O on the banks of the Thames; And it was then that, through optic glass, the Tuscan Artist viewed the moon…what a time to be alive!  The English writers of that period soaked up the electrifying atmosphere and pushed the English literary language to become a rival to the great literatures of Europe: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and early modern Italy, France, and Spain.  The authors of the English Renaissance are giants of the imagination: Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Aphra Behn, John Milton, John Dryden… I enjoy teaching enormously and do so inside the classroom and further afield, on poetry walks, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, in the cinema, and in the theatre.

Michael D. Hurley

I teach literature of the late modern period (c.1750-present), as well as courses in Practical Criticism & Critical Practice, Lyric, The History and Theory of Literary Criticism, and Literature and the Ethical Imagination. I am especially interested in form and style, and how qualities of ‘literariness’ can enable writers to say, think, or do things that could not otherwise be said, thought, or done. Much of my work has therefore an interdisciplinary edge to it, drawing on philosophy and theology to explore the connections between the way books and poems make us feel and what they invite us to understand. Above all, my research is directed towards ultimate questions and questions of value.

Anne Toner

I teach mainly literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I have a strong interest in the history of the novel. I am interested in how speech and thought are represented in fiction and I have worked on the representation of interruptions, hesitations and pauses in drama and prose, from Shakespeare to the novels of Conrad and Woolf. I am currently working on Jane Austen and am enjoying teaching classes that look closely at some aspects of style and form across English fiction.

What is a typical Term’s work?

Because the fellows who teach English at Trinity are highly responsive to the individuality of each student, it is not easy to answer this question in a simple way. However, a typical term in the first two years might run as follows, if the students were working on, say, Shakespeare:

  • Five or six meetings in pairs (‘supervisions’) with a particular fellow in each of which an essay written by the student is discussed, a topic for the next meeting is agreed, and reading is assigned. Students might decide in consultation with their teacher to focus on one play in detail – or even on one scene, considering the ways that it has been and might be staged; or they might pursue a word or idea that has caught their attention through several plays.
  • Weekly meetings with another teacher in groups of about five to discuss wider issues involved in the study of Shakespeare. Topics for discussion might include: the development of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and its relationship with modern theatrical practice; political theories of the period; critical and theoretical approaches; or Shakespeare’s influence on later writers such as Keats or Joyce.
  • Weekly meetings in groups of about five to pursue a course in ‘Practical Criticism’. In Trinity this tends to mean the intense and collaborative discussion of a particular passage unrelated to your main work for the term, considering how its details create its most exciting effects, and developing ways of talking about what the language is doing. This might involve technical vocabulary, or simply placing new kinds of pressure on the language we already use.
  • Students have the opportunity to integrate the study of a foreign language into their degree by borrowing papers from the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos. Not every student is guaranteed the opportunity to study the language of their choice, but will be able to apply to pursue this option.

There are many variations on this basic format, depending upon the preferences of individual students, who might work more often on their own with particular teachers, or in pairs based around shared interests.

In the third year, each student’s progress becomes even more individual and they are afforded a great deal of choice in the direction that their studies take. All students have to take a paper on Tragedy and one on Practical Criticism but thereafter they compose their own plans of study from the many options available. You will find a list of possibilities on the English Faculty’s website. If you would like a copy of the course brochure, you should write to the English Faculty, 9 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP.

Is Trinity a difficult College to get into to read English?

Trinity has more places than most colleges: we admit about 10 students each year. Offers are made on the basis of a careful interviewing procedure that involves the submission of written work, two interviews, and the ELAT (see below). The typical conditional offer is A*AA.  Comparable conditions are set for those taking the IB and other school-leaving examinations. We encourage applications from students of all backgrounds. The interview process gives us the chance to get to know students individually and make informed decisions on their suitability for the course.

A-level candidates are expected to be taking English Literature. Beyond this, there is no specially preferred scheme of A-levels, although the usual general conditions outlined in the ‘Preferred A-level Subject Combinations’ section apply. Many successful applicants have offered English and two science A-levels, or English and Maths, etc.

Those invited for interview will receive two interviews. The format at Trinity is very similar to those at other colleges. In one of the interviews, you will be asked more general questions about your reading and thinking. You may also be asked about the personal statement and the school or college essay that you submitted in advance. During the other interview, we will ask you about one or two short pieces of writing that you have not previously seen. This might be poetry, or prose, or both.  You will have time to read and make notes about the text(s) directly before the interview. You are not expected to have any prior knowledge of the texts discussed in this interview.

We want to assess how you might develop in the future as well as what you have achieved in the past. We hope that students of English at Trinity will be influenced by what they read, write, say, hear, and do while they are here. A readiness to change opinion as a result of criticism, a willingness to argue for convictions or preferences, intellectual curiosity, an interest in something bigger than oneself – these are some of the virtues that both students and teachers of English need.

What are we looking for in an interview, and what can you do to prepare?

  • In the most basic sense we are looking for people who love to read, and think carefully and thoughtfully about what they read. This often comes across through the ability to talk in precise, engaged ways about works that you have read – an ability to zoom in upon particular moments, scenes or words from a given work that you find compelling, or even infuriating – and a desire to discuss why this might be.
  • We are not looking for a fully developed technical vocabulary, a capacity to reproduce theoretical jargon or the ability to recite Homer from memory. Every candidate will have his or her own interests and skills – we want to see how you are using these to begin unpicking the works that matter to you and the reasons why they matter.
  • The best preparation for interview is reading copiously, beyond the dictates of your schoolwork. Read a range of works – poetry and drama as well as prose, and from periods with which you are not already familiar. How you read is as important as what you read – it is more interesting to have specific points to make about a few sonnets that you admire than to have read all of George Eliot’s novels but recall them only vaguely. It is when discussing the details that have won their attention that candidates’ aptitude and love for the study of literature tends to shine most brightly.

The Gould Prize for Essays in English Literature

Please see here; for further details about the Gould Prize for Essays in English Literature.

Admissions Assessment

All applicants are required to take the English Literature Admission Test (ELAT) pre-interview for English at an authorised centre local to them (for a lot of applicants, this will be their school/college).

Assessment Format

You must be registered in advance (separately to your UCAS application) to take the assessment – the registration deadline is 15 October 2021. Your assessment centre must register you for the pre-interview assessment; you’re not able to register yourself. See the written assessments page for information about assessment centres and registration.

Further details about the format of the assessment and preparatory materials can be found on the written assessments page.

The ELAT will be taken on 4 November 2021. It will be a 90 minute assessment. You will be given six passages of poetry, prose or drama, from which you choose two or three to compare in an essay.

Please note that your performance in the pre-interview assessment will not be considered in isolation, but will be taken into account alongside the other elements of your application.

Teaching Staff

  • Dr Sean Curran
  • Dr Anna-Maria Hartmann
  • Professor Michael D. Hurley
  • Dr Anne Toner

Course statistics from recent years


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