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YouTube has a collection of lectures given by Dr John McNamara of the University of Houston.

These are well worth looking at (the first can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wry5f_9iKyQ&list=PLKkZIp6qDGfTM9bOW_TcF9pcQUM710HHX) not least because he points out the importance of placing literature against the context in which it was written and the audiences who would have originally had access to it – he gives the specific, and daring, example of William Blake’s Little Black Boy (see below)  – this is quite refreshing for those of us who find a lot of academics trying to impose modern concepts (ideological, religious, political etc) on works of previous generations.

By William Blake 1757–1827

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
In addition, Dr McNamara points out that an individual waking up on the 1st January 1800 would not have awoken to a completely new world.  This is common sense but it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of isolated pockets, forgetting that ideas, beliefs etc evolve and run parallel to other notions (even if a particular style is fashionable) but can also continue to have influence on later generations.  Personally, I believe this arises from our need to pigeon-hole everyone and everything!
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