Topics for Research Papers

Humanities 410

Fall 2004 Paul Brians

Note: each entry below makes suggestions. You need to choose among them and further define the topic working with us, but pay attention to any aspects of the topic that are listed as mandatory.

Lyric Poetry

The love of Inanna and Dumuzi (also known as Tammuz). Several poems exist celebrating the love between the Sumerian Queen of Heaven and a handsome shepherd. Begin by looking them up in Thorkild Jacobsen's The Harps That Once . . .: Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Analyze their contents. What do they reveal about Sumerian attitudes toward women, toward love and sex? You may want to explore the relationship of this myth to the Bible (look in indexes, etc. under "Tammuz"). What is the significance of the ritual of mourning for Dumuzi/Tammuz? Can you see any parallels between these poems and the Song of Songs? Then do the research to discover how the myth of Tammuz has been related to to other, later mythological figures. How does he relate, for instance to Adonis? Warning: this is a difficult subject to do well--you need perseverence and expertise in searching.

Relationship of Moorish and Arabic love poetry to European, including Ibn Hazm: Tawq al-Hammah (The Dove's Necklace). Check anthologies and studies of Arabic, Moorish poetry. Explore the similarities between their writings on love and those of Medieval European writers, notably the troubadours and Andreas Capellanus. This topic will probably require Interlibrary Loan, so research must begin early to be completed successfully.

Rumi: love poetry. Persian poet. Discover what you can about his life. What kind of imagery does he use? What sorts of attitudes toward love are reflected in his poems?

Jayadeva: Gita Govinda. The classic work on Krishna as lover. A good modern translation is available in the library. Check studies and anthologies of Indian poetry, Sanskrit poetry for more information.

Mirabai (Mira Bai): Hindu mystical poet, also devoted to Krishna. There are many translations of her works and two recordings of musical settings of them in MMS. Wht do we know about her life? Her legend? What sorts of imagery does she use in describing her relationship with the god?

Kalidasa: The Recognition of Sakuntala (Shakuntala). The most famous of Hindu classical plays. A fairy-tale-like story of the love between a supernaturally beautiful maiden and a glorious but cursed prince. What kinds of images are used to convey passion and beauty in the play? What are its sources? How does it differ from other versions of the same story? What are the religious messages of this play for Hindus?

Sappho: poems. Ancient Greek poet. Read all of her poems (they make up a very short book). What was her reputation in the ancient world? How did it change later? Why have so few of her poems survived? What kinds of stories have been told about her? Check for art and music inspired by her work. Be careful: older criticism of Sappho tends to dismiss her "lesbianism" while modern criticism tends to emphasize it. Don't get stuck reading scholarship from only one side on this issue.

Choose one of these two ancient Roman love poets: Propertius and Catullus. Compare their themes and techniques with those of Ovid.

Christine de Pisan. Medieval French writer. Study her writings on women and on love. What attitudes does she express? She is often seen as a defender of women and of marriage. What other ideas does she include in her work?

Dante: La Vita Nuova. Medieval Italian. Why did Dante write these poems? Does his attitude toward love change over time? Who was Beatrice, and what was his relationship to her. What connection does this collection of verse have with his more famous work, The Divine Comedy (specifically the

Petrarch: Sonnets and ballads. Italian Renaissance. What was his role in developing the sonnet? How did he influence other love poets? What was the real story behind these poems? How do they reflect the changes he went through? What themes does he express? Look for musical settings of his poems.

Shakespeare: Sonnets. English Renaissance. Not all of these poems are about love; concentrate on the ones that are. Check recent scholarship on the sonnets. Try to determine what the main controversies have been about them. Choose one or two of these issues to explore.

Ronsard: Les amours. French Renaissance. What are his major themes? Study his life. Check for musical settings of his works. Because there are few translations of Ronsard's poetry in our library, this topic should be done by someone who reads French fluently.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Sonnets from the Portuguese. British, 19th century.Who was the author and what relationship inspired these poems? What attitudes toward love do they express?

Léopold Sédar Senghor and others: The Love Poetry of Negritude. Black Caribbean and African poets who identified with the negritude (black consciousness) movement made heavy use of love/erotic imagery in their works. Senghor is especially interesting in this regard, but you might look at others: locate their names in books on negritude. How are women related to nature? How does the poet try to revise traditional notions of beauty? How does love conflict at times with negritude?

Other Literature

Plato: The Symposium. Ancient Greek. A philosophical dialogue containing a discussion of various views of love, including Plato's own. What different kinds of attitudes are expressed? What do people mean when they talk about "Platonic love" and is that what Plato describes in this work?

Andreas Capellanus: The Art of Courtly Love. Medieval Latin. A treatise on "courtly love" which provided the foundation for C. S. Lewis' influential The Four Loves. During the sixties and seventies a heated controversy erupted over whether Capellanus was writing seriously or satirically. Investigate recent scholarship and try to follow the controversy that developed in the sixties and seventies (look for overviews published in the eighties). Was there such a thing as courtly love in the Middle Ages? Was it as described by Capellanus?

The letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Medieval Latin. Two of the most famous lovers in history. What was the influence of their writing? What works of fiction, music, art, were inspired by their story? Did they differ in their attitudes toward love? What was the reality behind their relationship? What do modern feminist critics say about them?

Chrétien de Troyes: Erec and Enide. Medieval French Arthurian romance. Hint: look in an anthology of romances edited by Roger S. Loomis. What role does love play in this story? How is it related to marriage? What makes this romance different from some other medieval romances? Check scholarship on Chrétien generally and on love in the Middle Ages.

Chrétien de Troyes: Yvain, or the Knight and the Lion. Medieval French Arthurian romance. What role does love play in this romance? What commonplaces does Chrétien use? Check scholarship on Chrétien generally and on love in the Middle Ages.

The story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Begin with Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot, or, The Knight of the Cart (Medieval French Arthurian romance). What other important literary treatments of the theme have there been? You might want to look at the musical Camelot. Trace the conflict of feudal loyalty and love. Is adultery disparaged or idealized in this story?

Gottfried von Strassburg: Tristan. Medieval German. One of the most famous of all love stories. How does Gottfried change the story to express his own ideas about love? Is love good, bad, or something else? Most books and many articles on medieval love ideas will contain something about this work. Focus on recent scholarship (the 20 last years). You may want to watch Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde in MMS on laserdisc and see what he did with the story.

Fernando de Rojas: La Celestina. Medieval Spanish play. What kinds of attitudes toward love are expressed? How? What was the fame and influence of this work? Who was the author?

Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde. Medieval English romance. Study this famous love story in the context of the Medieval tradition of courtly love. Emphasize recent scholarship (the past twenty-five years). If you can't read Middle English, use the modern translation in the library.

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing. English Renaissance. What are the attitudes expressed toward love in this play? What tensions are set up between affection and wit? What does recent scholarship say about the play's attitudes toward love? Try to see the Kenneth Branagh film if you can. Be sure to view some production.

Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther. German romantic novel. Why was this work so influential? What inspired it? Be sure to study the appropriate period of Goethe's life. What other works did it influence? Listen to Massenet's opera Werther and see what the composer did with the story. The importance of this work lies not in its contents, but in its influence.

Flaubert: Madame Bovary. French 19th century novel. Famous realistic attack on romantic illusions. Focus on the satire on 19th centuries ideas about love. Or study the court case surrounding the publication of the book.

George Sand: French 19th-century novelist. Choose one of her more famous novels and discuss how it relates to love. Be sure to read at least one biography of Sand. She had a remarkable love life herself.

Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin. Russian novel in verse, nineteenth century. Examine the attitudes expressed toward love in this work. In what ways is it a romantic work? In what ways realistic? Compare it with Tchaikovsky's opera of the same name.

Colette: French 20th-century novelist. Start with the entries about her in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.Drawing on what you learn in TCLC, choose one or more of her novels which deals extensively with love Gigi, . Be sure to choose works about which there is substantial scholarship available. What attitudes toward love does she express?

Giants (very long works which should be undertaken only by those with plenty of time on their hands or a very high reading speeds)

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji. Japanese 11th century novel. Read the first part (up to Genji's death). Study Heian court life and its attitudes toward love.

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung: The Romance of the Rose. French Medieval allegory. The most famous poem on love in the Middle Ages, enormously influential, but not very attractive to most modern readers. There is a great deal written about it. Note that Geoffrey Chaucer made a translation of the first part of it into Middle English. A mixture of idealism and cynicism. Good for advanced students of Medieval literature.

Alessandro Manzoni: The Betrothed. Italian, nineteenth century novel. A Catholic classic. An exciting tale of love and adventure, set in the 17th century. Analyze what love means to the characters, how it interacts with piety.

Tolstoy: Anna Karenina. Russian nineteenth century novel. Classic tale of passion vs. marital duty and motherhood. One of the great novels of adultery. Explore its attitudes toward love.


First, read about the opera in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. View the opera you will be working on immediately, before you continue your research. You will return to the recording later, but you need to be sure you can enjoy working with it before plunging into the scholarship.

Berlioz: Les Troyens. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 13732). Read the relevant section from Virgil's Aeneid. Examine the conflict between love and duty. How is Dido's role as Queen of Carthage limited by her role as a lover? Discuss the ending. Be sure to discuss the music.

Bizet: Carmen. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 14384). Read the story by Prosper Mérimée. Why is this one of the most popular operas ever written? Explore the theme of the femme fatale (destructive, predatory woman). Be sure to discuss the music.

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS14382). Read The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. Discuss the traditions of "mad scenes," parental interference. Be sure to discuss the music.

Gershwin: Porgy & Bess. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (15552). Research the origins of this remarkable work and the controversy surrounding it which makes some African-American performers object to it while others embrace it and still others are ambivalent about it. Be sure to discuss the music.

Gounod: Romeo et Juliette. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 18981). Compare this version of the story with others we have studied. Be sure to discuss the music.

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 13730). Why was this myth one of the most popular subjects for baroque opera? Compare this work with Monteverdi's Orfeo (available on CD). Read the story of Orpheus and Euridice in Ovid's Metamorphoses. How has Gluck changed the story? Be sure to discuss the music.

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 16338). This is the earliest opera still frequently performed. What are its major themes? What was new and different about this opera from earlier ones? Why was it so influential? Why did the theme of Orpheus appeal to so many composers?

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 14473). It is very closely based on a play by Beaumarchais. Does this opera constitute a critique of certain attitudes toward love? What does it say about men and women? About class relationships? How were these works first received? What did early critics have to say about them? Be sure to discuss the music.

Puccini: La Bohème. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (14394 or 18951). You might read Murger's Scenes de la vie de bohème, translated as Latin Quarter. How has Puccini adapted the Murger's stories? Study the theme of the sickly 19th-century heroine. Does the opera romanticize poverty? What qualities make Puccini's music different from that of earlier opera composers, like Verdi? Be sure to discuss the music.

Puccini: Madama Butterfly. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 16337). This opera which depicts tragic love affair between an American Naval officer and the humble Japanese beauty who loves him has become very controversial in recent years. Why do some critics feel it denigrates Asian women? What do their opponents have to say? To what degree are the characters stereotypes and to what degree are they individuals? If you are familiar with the musical M. Butterfly you might compare the two. Be sure to discuss the music.

Puccini: Turandot. Begin by viewing the opera in the two versions we have (VHS 18972 and DVD 19). This is the fairytale-like story of a heartless princess who challenges her suitors to a deadly guessing game. Like Madama Butterfly, it has been criticized for "orientalizing"--stereotyping Asian culture. The Chinese-Italian production on DVD 19 is fascinating in this regard, since it seeks to blend Chinese opera techniques with Western ones in a massive production in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Read about this production and reviews of it. View the auxiliary documentary on the DVD. If you lack a DVD player, you can use the one in the library. Be sure to discuss the music.

Rossini: Barber of Seville. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 14380). If you cannot read French, read a translation of Beaumarchais' original play by the same title. How does this work relate to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro? Be sure to discuss the music.

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 14374). This lavish work attempts to the recreate the world of Mozart's Vienna, complete with a "trouser role" (a woman singing the part of a male character). In what ways does it hark back to earlier times; in what ways is it distinctively modern? To what degree does it expresses cynicism about love? Discuss the theme of age and love. Be sure to discuss the music.

Verdi: Aida. Begin by viewing the opera on videotape (VHS 14381). Set in ancient Egypt. For what occasion was it written? What are its major themes? How is love treated in the opera? Be sure to discuss the music.

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde. Begin by viewing the opera on laserdisc (LD 11--the library has a laserdisc player). This opera is based on a very few episodes taken from the long Medieval romance of Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, which depicts the illicit love affair of the Queen of Cornwall with her husband's favorite courtier. It is strikingly similar to the story of the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot triangle, if you are familiar with that. Read Gottfried's version, study how Wagner shaped the story. What typically Wagnerian musical techniques are used in this opera? Be sure to discuss the music.

Musical settings of the Song of Songs. Especially during the Middle Ages and Renaissance passages from the Song of Songs was frequently used as texts for religious musical works. Identify and listen to as many as you can and discuss what parts of the book were most commonly used, how the text was interpreted, and where and how the music was performed.


Note: outside of Western culture, there is more explicitly erotic art than art depicting romantic love. Hence most of the following topics deal with European art.

Love as a theme in Persian and Indian miniatures. We know that there are many illustrations of the love story of Layla and Majnun. What other love stories were accompanied by miniature illustrations? What parts of the stories do they tend to emphasize? Where are they made? What are their influences?

Venus and Diana in art. How are they commonly contrasted? What works put them side by side? Are other figures representing the same qualities as Diana sometimes paired with Venus?

Titian's Venuses. Why did he paint so many pictures of the goddess of love? What are the main themes and poses he used? What did they mean to the people who commissioned these works. What has the influence of these works been?

The image of Cupid/Amor/Eros in European art. Identify sculptures and paintings from ancient times down through the nineteenth century. What are his main symbols? What is his function? When are images like this most popular?

Venus and Adonis. What did the ancient Greeks and Romans write about their relationship? How were they depicted in ancient art? How did this influence later depictions of them in European art? What are the main sorts of images made of these two lovers?

Venus and the Virgin Mary. In the Middle Ages, many of the characteristics of Venus were transferred to her seeming opposite, the Virgin Mary. Study Medieval poems and images which reflect this influence and discuss the nature of the symbolism that is transferred from one to the other.

Love in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. First, identify who they were. They made extensive use of literary sources in their works. How did they try to revive earlier attitudes toward love and women?

Gay and/or lesbian themes in art. In what periods have such works been popular? What kind of artists have created them? What is their significance? A good (though sometimes startlingly explicit) collection of Western male homosexual art and literature from all periods is Cecile Beurdeley's L'amour bleu (trans. Michael Taylor. New York: Rizzoli, 1978). You will need to use other sources to track down background, since Beurdeley's commentary focusses on literature.

Marriage portraits. Begin by looking at Chapter 9 of Edwin Mullins: The Painted Witch: Female Body, Male Art for the most famous examples. Select representative ones and compare them. Compare with betrothal scenes, royal weddings, middle class ones, etc. Do these paintings convey a feeling of romantic love?

Love in Arcadian settings. Pastoral or Arcadian themes dominated long periods in European art, with shepherds and shepherdesses courting or dancing in a natural setting. When were such works produced? Where? What patterns did they follow? How are they related to pastoral literature?

Erotic art:

These topics should be done only be students not easily offended by explicit sexual imagery. Until recently they were very difficult to study, given the limitations of our library, but now such works are readily available on the Web, which should be your first stop in orienting yourself. There are some relevant books on them in the library as well, but some are in Compact Storage, and must be requested at the circulation desk.

Japanese shunga. These very explicit woodblock prints depict a wide variety of sexual activities with great energy and color. What was the great age of Shunga? Who were the most important artists? What were the functions of Shunga prints? What were the main images and techniques used? What sorts of attitudes of Japanese people had toward these works over the centuries?

The tantric temple art of Khajuraho, India. What are the main features of this art? What are the spiritual meanings of this very sexual art? How is such art regarded inside India, which is otherwise noted for a generally prudish attitude toward sex?

The erotic art of ancient Pompeii. A great deal of sculpture and wall decoration in Pompeii has sexual subjects. Why? What functions did such images play? What was the significance of various images? Which were the most common?