From the mid-16th century onward, America loomed large in the English imagination. Popular poems of exploration and settlement helped both to document and to inspire the colonial enterprise. And, in works by poets such as Spenser, Shakespeare, Marvell, Dryden, and Pope, America was not only a fanciful world of new and marvelous things, but also a key to English self-understanding in the imperial age. By the early 17th century, poetry was being written abundantly in the colonies themselves, and for the next three hundred years America would continue to be both source and subject of some of the most interesting poetry in the English language. For many students of poetry, however, knowledge of American poetry doesn't go much further back than Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
This seminar offers up the whole story: a comprehensive survey of American poetry from the dawn of the Elizabethan age to the eve of 20th-century Modernism. Prior experience with the study of poetry (for example in English 20 or English 40) would be very helpful, but it is not required. We will pay close attention to a wide range of lyric and narrative forms, including odes, sonnets, epics, elegies, and ballads, and even some translations of Native American songs and chants. We will also explore the cultural work that American poetry does in relation to many crucial periods and issues, including colonialism and empire, American Puritanism, Enlightenment aesthetics, early women's writing, the Revolution and literary nationalism, American Romanticism, the anti-slavery movement, and Indian removal. Therefore, this course is also a good introduction to the rich and various literary cultures of early America, and it counts toward the pre-1800 requirement for U.S. Literature and Culture concentrators. Among the poets we will study are Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Ebenezer Cooke, Phillis Wheatley, Philip Freneau, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, Emma Lazarus, E. A. Robinson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. We will also spend a substantial amount of time on the two best-known early American poets --Whitman and Dickinson--in part to understand them better in relation to the larger history of American poetry, before and since.