Subject Overview

What will you study in an English course?

You will be encouraged to read a wide range of different texts – fiction, drama, and poetry, as well as works of non-fiction (journalism, science, politics, biography, philosophy, for example) from many different periods. This means you will learn different ways of reading, and almost certainly discover new interests and pleasures that you want to develop further. Some elements of your course may concentrate on a particular period (e.g. the Romantics; twentieth-century modernism), allowing you to think about how different works written about the same time relate to one another, and to larger movements in the thought and sensibility of the culture at that time. Other elements may focus on particular modes of writing (e.g. the novel; or tragedy; or satire; or science fiction) rather than particular periods. Most courses will offer ample opportunities to work on English literature written outside the British Isles, and perhaps to draw comparisons with works originally written in other languages, or with works in other media, such as film or song or graphic art.

Simultaneously, you will be learning different approaches to the analysis of texts. For example, how they may reflect and/or resist the distribution of power in the wider culture (including the power of cultural stereotypes, for example ideas about gender or race). Or, how they may manifest the workings of the psyche, showing how fundamental energies, desires and fantasies are expressed, repressed or transformed under pressure from competing forces. Or, how they interpret the relationship between the human and the environment (the built environment, or the natural world). Or, how we may understand texts in the light of particular social practices of reading, performance, playfulness, or debate. Or, how texts – or their readers – construct their meanings, and about the function, status, and stability of those meanings once constructed. This list is far from exhaustive.

The study of English encourages close attention to how language works: tone, imagery, syntax, rhythm, allusion and so on. The kind of large ideas mentioned in the previous paragraph are grounded in linguistic detail; and details of language are shown to have very large implications.

Some courses (though not all) will also have a strong practical strand, with opportunities for creative writing, or for theatre work, for example.

What skills – and what resources - will you gain?

Studying English will help you
• improve your powers of argument;
• develop your own voice, becoming more articulate both orally and on paper;
• think critically about the arguments of others;
• ‘read’ the texts and signals of the culture around you more discriminatingly;
• connect your feelings with your ideas;
• sharpen your awareness of how language works;
• appreciate the rich diversity of cultural experience and production;
• access big ideas from other disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, and politics;
• work both independently and collaboratively;
• research efficiently with IT, and communicate effectively through social media.

It will also open up areas of reading and reflection that will, in many cases, give you a lifetime resource of pleasure, interest, and self-development. The appreciation of literature doesn’t stop with graduation!

No less important, because the study of English is not about the simple acquisition of hard knowledge, but an area where opinion and dialogue and personal experience are all crucial, training here will equip you well for the fluid, interactive, complex, and rapidly changing nature of modern society. No subject is better than English at helping you to make connections.

What kind of career will you have?

It would be a mistake to think that most graduates in English head for directly English-related careers (teaching, publishing, marketing, the media, the arts). A few certainly do, but an English degree provides a good springboard for most graduate-level careers, and many English graduates go on to work, for example, in business, in the public sector, in senior-level administration, or in the law.


In this video, Conrad, a first year English PhD student at King's College, talks about his passion for English and why he's selected his chosen research topic:

Try and consider your own favourite aspects of your subject. Are there any topics you've particularly enjoyed studying? Can you think of any links between these topics?

  • Examining the Importance of the British Empire

    We will examine some sources that ask the critical questions about the impact of the largest empire the world has ever known, covering at its height a quarter of the globe, for the people who lived within it – and think about why the political, cultural and economic influence of Britain continues to predominate in the world today.

  • 'The God of our Idolatry' Shakespeare's Fame

    Why is Shakespeare compulsory in every English literature syllabus? Why is this playwright, more than any other English writer, so famous? This module will try and answer some of these questions by returning to eighteenth-century England, the period in which Shakespeare rose to fame for the first time.

  • Tennyson and Victorian Cultures of Death

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) is perhaps the archetypal Victorian poet. Appointed as Poet Laureate by Queen Victoria when Wordsworth died in 1850, he held the position for forty-two years, until his own death in 1892.

  • What is Literature?

    You're thinking about studying English literature at university. But what does that word 'literature' actually mean? This topic looks at where literature begins and ends, and why defining it might matter or not matter.

  • Edward Lear and Nonsense Verse

    Edward Lear published his first collection of poems, A Book of Nonsense, in 1846, reinventing an old verse form, the limerick, and winning the affe

  • Animating Reading: Charles Dickens and 'Great Expectations'

    Whether you’re meeting Dickens for the first time, or revisiting him after a breather, this module is all about tackling the intricacies of Dickens’s printed voice.

  • Framing Theatricality on the Early Modern Stage

    There is much to be gained from detailed analysis of the text, paying careful attention to the structures, forms, and strategies at work on the page. In engaging critically with writing for the stage there are many issues to consider, including voice, the sound of the language, and the visual effects of movement and physical gesture.

  • Nobility and Fame in Medieval English Literature

    This topic looks at a few examples from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English literature that consider the assumed connection between noble action and noble birth.

  • Keats

    John Keats is one of the finest poets in the English language, and many readers’ absolute favourite. Most people encounter Keats for the first time through his short poems; this unit will invite you to read or re-read those poems, but its focus is on one of Keats’s longer works – more challenging on a first reading, but well worth the effort.

  • Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

    Midnight’s Children is an exuberant, riotous celebration of the richness of Indian society, but it also contains stark criticisms, particularly of politicians. It is an adventure-story, a love-story and a thriller, a war novel and an international and multi-generational portrait of India in the three decades after Independence. The activities in this module invite you to consider the political significance of the novel in four stages.

  • French: The Diary of a Teenager

    It might seem that with the popularity of social media and the ‘selfie’, people are thinking and talking about themselves more than ever before.

  • The Responsibility of Poetry

    Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who died only recently, in 2013, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. In his acceptance speech he considered what kind of responsibility poetry has, or should have, to the world we live in. We shall return to Heaney at the end of this unit, but first we shall take a detour to Wordsworth, whom Heaney mentions in his speech as a model, and whose poetry raises similar issues in a different way.

  • Virginia Woolf

    Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway relates the comings and goings of a house in Westminster, London, the home of Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, who is preparing to throw a party. This resource centres on the first 20 pages or so of the novel, and should be considered an introduction to some of the quirks, problems and pleasures of ‘reading’ the city in Woolf’s company.

  • Reading T.S. Eliot

    The poet, playwright and literary critic T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) wrote that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’.