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 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 done by four fellows (members of the teaching staff): Alex Freer, Anna-Maria Hartmann, Anne Toner, and Clare Walker Gore. These four 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.
I teach literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a special focus on the tradition we’ve come to call romanticism. I also teach literary criticism and theory from the eighteenth century to the present. I’m especially interested in poetry and the theories people make about it, and how those theories change over time. I’m also interested in the ways that English literature and criticism interact with other disciplines (such as philosophy, psychology, and critical theory) and how those disciplines might help us to read in new ways. Teaching English, like studying it, is exciting to me because it combines scrupulous attention to individual lines and engagement with big ideas about history, society, and our roles as readers.
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.
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.
Clare Walker Gore
I work mainly on nineteenth-century literature, with a particular focus on fiction. I’m especially interested in novelistic plot, and my first book, Plotting Disability in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, explores the part played by disabled characters in Victorian fiction of various kinds. I am currently working on a project about life writing by and about female novelists in the nineteenth century. My research interests broadly include the history of the novel, women’s writing, feminist and queer approaches to literature, disability studies, and life writing. You can hear me talking a bit about my work here and here, and read a Q&A about my current project here.
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.