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.
What is it like to study English at Trinity?
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 the theatre, as well as to art galleries 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 done by three fellows (members of the teaching staff): Philip Knox, Anne Toner and Ross Wilson. These three also serve as directors of studies – the person who helps you choose and organise your particular path through the English Tripos (the three year undergraduate course). You will also receive teaching at various points from people based in other colleges – usually around a quarter of the total – and each director of studies also arranges this teaching.
At Trinity I teach the earliest texts written in English that students will study on their degree. In practice, this means that I teach the ‘late-medieval’ paper (1300-1550) for Part I of the Tripos, and any papers with a medieval focus for Part II, where it is possible to study twelfth- and thirteenth-century literature. My own special interests lie in the endlessly fascinating poetry of fourteenth-century England (Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), and I think a lot about how this poetry relates to literature from France and further afield. I enjoy working with medieval manuscripts, and I like to give students at Trinity the opportunity to come and look at the rich collection of medieval materials we hold in the Wren Library.
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.
My main interests are in poetry from around 1750 to the present and in the various connections between literature, philosophy, and theology. Most of my teaching is for ‘Practical Criticism and Critical Practice’ (in both Parts I and II), but I also regularly teach ‘English Literature and its Contexts, 1660-1870’ and the Part II optional papers, ‘English Moralists’, ‘History and Theory of Literary Criticism’, and ‘Lyric’; I also enjoy giving a seminar for the ‘Tragedy’ paper on sacrifice in the Bible.
There are several other Fellows associated with English at Trinity. Angela Leighton is a Senior Research Fellow; she is primarily interested in poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is herself a practising poet. We currently have three Junior Research Fellows: Micha Lazarus works on the relationship between poetic theory and literary experiment in Renaissance England; Alex Freer on romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth and Shelley, on literary theory and the history of criticism; and Clare Walker Gore on the representation of disability, especially in Victorian fiction. Adrian Poole is retired but continues to do some teaching, mainly on tragedy, Shakespeare, and nineteenth-century authors, especially Henry James. David McKitterick is the former Wren Librarian and a leading authority on the History of the Book.
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 solo interviews, and a written test. The typical conditional offer is A*AA; comparable conditions are set for those taking the IB and other school-leaving examinations. We do not prioritise students from any particular background, and 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 ‘Acceptable 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. In one of these you will be asked more general questions about your reading and thinking. You may also be asked about the school or college essay that you submitted in advance. In the other interview, you will be asked questions about particular pieces of writing in poetry or prose or both. Shortly before this latter interview you will be asked to sit a one-hour written test consisting of two questions. One of these will require you to write a short essay; the other will form the basis of questions in the subsequent interview. In this interview you will also be given a piece of writing that you have not previously seen, on which you will be asked to comment. We don’t expect you to have previous knowledge of any of the texts that you will be asked to talk or write about over the course of the day
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 (preferably for the better) 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.