March 31


Primer on the GRE Subject Test in Literature (part two)

Here is the second part of my informal guide to preparing for the subject test. As mentioned before, it would be wise to combine this primer with official textbooks and practice tests.

My argument is that you don’t need to know all of literature to excel in the test. Certain areas of poetry and prose seem favourites, so if you study them extensively, even if you get many questions wrong, you will still end up in the top percentiles. Here is my list of topics, and how much to know about each:

  1. The Romantic poets (as described in the previous post). Here you want a pretty detailed recall of the major poems of Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Blake, and Shelley.
  2. The Elizabethan poets. Do something similar with Donne, George Herbert, Ben Johnson, Drayton. How does Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer” sound different to a Shakespearean sonnet, or to Drayton’s “Shake hands forever” sonnet? I had to guess at a lot of these questions, and I wish I had studied it a little beforehand.
  3. American early twentieth century poets: Williams, Moore, Brooks, Cummings etc. Clearly this is a bigger group than the ones just mentioned, so read up on who these poets were and get a sense of what their poems sound like. I am not an expert here, and so can’t recommend an introductory text.
  4. The English critics. There is a line of criticism in the British Isles that goes from Samuel Johnson to William Pater (in the real world it obviously continues into Wilde and Empson, and from them into the modern age, but by Empson we are getting a little modern for the Subject Test). The trouble is that they seem to be rarely taught, so it is just a question of working out who they are and reading some of their stuff: Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater. Maybe as a bonus a little of Ruskin, Coleridge, and Milton’s criticism, too.

These writers frequently explore the role of the imagination. They ask moral  questions about how we should live, how the use of imagination fits into the other intellectual faculties, and what role art should play in society. Johnson, Hazlitt, Pater and Ruskin are also brilliant prose writers, and their work is usually a pleasure to read.

  1. Theory. The GRE test seems to like questions that take the form of, “If you belong to ____ school of literary theory, then you believe___ about ___.” If you aren’t familiar with literary theory, the easiest explanation I have of it is that “theory” is like philosophy, but whereas philosophy uses real life for its examples and case studies, theory uses literature. Different schools of theory have different aims, and they range from the deeply esoteric to ones not so different to old school literary criticism (i.e. many forms of feminist criticism). Some people have recommended Terry Eagleton’s introduction to the subject; the Very Short Introduction may help. The long way round is to read through the collection of introductory essays in Critical Theory Since Plato.
  2. Literary terminology. There are questions on terms like anaphora, anastrophe. I don’t have any clever advice for how to study them: the wikipedia list is extensive—maybe go through looking for ones to do with poetry and rhetoric.
  3. Chaucer. Read the prologue to The Canterbury Tales both in Modern English and the original. Some questions require you to figure out the meaning of sentences in Middle English—this is much easier if you know who all the characters are already.
  4. Old English. There are questions on passages of Old English, and you are required to decipher the meaning of words or phrases. No idea how to go about learning this—I guessed.
  5. A spark notes level knowledge of: The Faerie Queen, major African American novels (such as The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man, Parable of the Sower…), Victorian poets, some of the early British and Victorian novelists. A friend recommends reading the introduction to each writer in the relevant Norton anthology.

Clearly this is a lot to study, and, writing this list out, I was reminded that I began studying some of this stuff back in school, for my English GCSEs and A level.

The best way I have found to acquire the sort of broad knowledge the test requires is by reading surveys and biographies. Choose some writers you enjoy, and read a biography that focuses on their contemporaries and influences (like Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf).

The survey book that I got started with, because it was recommended by a science fiction writer, is Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. It is an amazing work in its own right. Frye’s goal is to make sense of all literature and classify it, thereby outlining of what humanity’s place in the cosmos might be. Whether he succeeds or not is less significant than the genius he deploys in the attempt. Reading it was not simple, as I simply didn’t know all the books he referred to, but it provided the branches for much of my later research. After Frye, I had a map.

I can suggest other such grand sweeps if readers are interested. For poetry, I would recommend Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems in the English Language. It is a good single volume anthology with similar interests to the people designing the test. Ignore Bloom’s politics—just fall in love with the poems.

Best wishes with reading, and good luck,



critical theory, getting into a PhD, GRE subject test in Literature, Northrop Frye

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      • I’m not taking it for a few years — but I’m reading voraciously now so I don’t have to struggle in the last months. 🙂

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