English 331.301
Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Donne to Milton

Instructor: Daniel Traister

Fall 1999

Time: Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:00-4:30 P.M.
Location: Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Library, sixth floor,
Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

Instructor's office: Department of Special Collections, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Phone: 215 898 7088; fax: 215 573 9079
E-mail: traister@pobox.upenn.edu

My idea is to present certain emblematic poems I care about deeply and to offer strategies for reading these poems. My readings are meant to be instructive and suggestive, not definitive, since poems are endlessly interpretable. There is always something about them that evades the understanding . . .

    Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, DoubleTake Books (New York: Center for Documentary Studies, in association with Harcourt Brace and Company, 1999), p. xi



Reading poetry from the later English Renaissance, we consider five poets from this period, John Donne, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton. Some of their poems seem knotty and crabbed to a modern taste. Others appear highly polished, as if all they have to say sits in plain view on their surface. Still others require knowledge of contemporary politics and related issues. Some demand attention to a specifically Christian religious perspective. All differ from contemporary poetry. They even differ from poetry characteristic of the immediately preceding and following periods.

Their writers challenge our expectations. They expect us to learn how to read them. They are not always "theoretically up-to-date." Occasionally, they even think that they write, not about the vagaries of language, but rather about topics that they imagine to be literally of ultimate importance. For them, poetry is still (as it no longer always seems to us) a vehicle for discourse about "truth." And for some of them, truth (as it no longer always seems to us) is knowable. Indeed, it is already known.

One other thing they have in common. Whether or not we always agree with their views, the demands they make, as we learn how to read them, will make us better readers: better readers not only of these poets but also of other poets, other writers. Reading them teaches us how to attend to language, meter, form, and content: a transferable skill. The instructor took no other course in his four years in college that he remembers as well as this course -- and none from which he learned more about how to read.

Two important caveats:

(1) Whatever virtues it may have, that style of "close reading" is by no means unobjectionable. One very brief critical comment about it is found in a recent essay:

Vincent B. Leitch, "Personal Retrospective on Theory:
Changing Paradigms from the 1960s to 1990s,"
The Massachusetts Review, 40:1 (Spring 1999), 44-59

Underlinings in the passage below
are my additions for purposes of emphasis.

To interpret as a New Critic . . . is to demonstrate by means of multiple rereadings and retrospective analyses of short individual canonical poetic texts the intricacy of highly wrought artistic forms, whose meanings consist not in extractable propositions or paraphrasable contents, but in exquisitely orchestrated textual connotations, tones, images, and symbols, intrinsic to the literary work itself preconceived as an autonomous and unified, dramatic artifact separate from the lives of the author and reader as well as from the work's sociohistorical milieu and its everyday language. In order to display the complex equilibrium, special economy, and internal purposiveness of the well-wrought verbal icon (i.e., the ideal literary work), the New Critic invariably takes recourse in paradox, ambiguity, and irony, which are pragmatic rhetorical instruments used to harmonize any and all textual incongruities so as to ensure unity.

There is, of course, a lot to criticize in this dense and powerful mid-century reading formation still referred to honorifically as both "practical criticism" and "close reading." This type of textual explication remains for many critics not only a valuable norm, but, even for its professed enemies, a main method of classroom teaching and professional demonstration. For the record, it dogmatically rules out or just plain ignores so much, including most notably personal response, social and historical context, ethical and political critique, institutional analysis, and "meaning." It devalues the experience of reading -- that is, the special unfolding and risky temporal flow -- by calling for multiple retrospective analyses in the search for mandatory textual unity and spatial form through which means literature gets turned into impersonal sculpture, icon or urn, freestanding and [51/52] monumentalized, meriting thereby critical adulation and special treatment. Let me recall, however, that the mid-century threats of ascendant academic science and social science, in part, prompted this severe sacralization of literature into a distinctive and miraculous discourse worthy of its own special department of study.

Also concerned with issues similar to those Leitch raises in the passage above -- and also very short -- is an essay by Peter J. Rabinowitz: "Against Close Reading," in Pedagogy Is Politics: Literary Theory and Critical Teaching, ed. Maria-Regina Kecht (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 230-243. Both essays would repay your close attention.

In fact, the instructor hopes you will keep such criticisms in mind as this course proceeds. Towards the end of the semester, or during it -- perhaps informally, and if the spirit moves you -- you will want to comment, in the light of such criticisms, about how its approach worked -- and how it did not work -- for you.

(2) Second, if what you expect is a "survey" of seventeenth-century English poetry, this class will not live up to your expectations. It is more or less exclusively concerned with only five poets and ignores many others who might equally merit your attention. Thomas Carew, Phineas Fletcher, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (our Herbert's brother), Robert Herrick, Henry King, Richard Lovelace, Katharine Philips, Francis Quarles, Thomas Stanley, John Suckling, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, Lady Mary Wroth: around these names, and many more, a completely different course could easily have been constructed. What you're not seeing in this class is hinted at in Alastair Fowler's anthology, The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse (Oxford University Press, 1991) [PR1209.N49.1991], H. R. Woudhuysen's Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse: 1509-1659 (Penguin, 1992) [PR1205.P46.1992], and Marian Wynne-Davies's Women Poets of the Renaissance (Routledge, 1999) [PR1177.W64.1999]. Picking up and reading in (or even through) one or another of these anthologies would be well worth your while.

It may be worth adding here that poets in this period were certainly not all religious poets. The collected poems of Sir George Etherege (ed. James Thorpe) or Lord Rochester (several recent editions) would (both of them) be instructive -- surprisingly instructive -- in this respect. So, a bit earlier, would be Thomas Nashe's "A Choise of Valentines" (in Nashe's Works, ed. R. B. McKerrow, rev. F. P. Wilson).


As you may have begun to notice, the instructor writes syllabi that are very detailed -- over-detailed -- about the courses he teaches. Read this section now to avoid surprise, disappointment, or horror later. No one has to take this class who doesn't want to take it. If you do take it, however, you should know what you're in for.

The instructor expects students to read, in addition to the poems themselves, some historical and critical works. A few are among the books and works required for this course. Recommended additional readings of this kind appear in the syllabus below, along with some background books about poetry itself.

"Recommendations" are recommendations. "Background" is background. These books are not covert requirements. They are listed here because the instructor, laboring under the quaint illusion that they might be useful to you, hopes you will read as much and as many of them as you can. "Hopes" -- not "expects," not "requires." Hopes. All "requirements" are specified in the weekly readings below.

Study of Renaissance English poetry (study of literature generally, in fact) is, in one sense, an ongoing conversation between people with vastly different points of view, from many different countries and cultures, and, now, speaking to one another across several centuries. Any course can offer an opportunity to sample that conversation, which, in its often odd way, can be one of the pleasures of the study of literature. You might as well begin to taste that pleasure, as well as the pleasures of the writers themselves, now. The amount of writing on early English poetry is vast. The instructor has tried to recommend a few (usually short) essays he thinks (1) might be useful, instructive, and readable; (2) reflect both older and more recent approaches to the poems; and (3) won't harm you.

Use the notes to the poems when you find them necessary. Try not to let them distract you from your reading when you don't find them necessary.

Renaissance English is modern. It is not the Old English of Beowulf. It is not the Middle English of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It is, however, early modern English. Present-day readers meeting it the first few times can find its differences from our own English confusing. As the semester progresses, you will find yourselves increasingly familiar with Renaissance English. If you have previously studied Shakespeare or Renaissance English poetry, drama, or prose, you may already be partially familiar with it: its vocabulary, forms of usage, syntax and word order, and its ability (often masked by modern spellings) to use single words to mean things we use several words to mean. When in doubt, in addition to using the notes, read the poem aloud. (It will become less embarrassing after a while.)

When still in doubt, the single best resource for readers of English-language works is the Oxford English Dictionary. OED is available to Penn students through the Library's website, as well as in its various printed forms. This dictionary does provide you with simple "definitions." Also -- and much more importantly -- it offers historical definitions, a record of how a word has been used over time. These, and not just "the definition," are what you want to learn to use when you use OED. This information allows you to see the range of different usages and meanings any given word might have made available to someone using it during the seventeenth century in addition to its primary, obvious, or present-day denotative value(s).

You also have access to a special library within Van Pelt, the Furness Memorial [Shakespeare] Library (6th floor). Furness has many additional dictionaries, guides, and studies specifically devoted to study of Shakespeare and of his contemporaries, including contemporary poets. Dictionaries of slang and of erotic or sexual terms (often found in love poetry) are likely to prove particularly useful. (Those of you who have read Shakespeare will already know why.) These materials do not circulate. They are always there for your use.

Several online resources to assist the study of early English writing exist. Some of them are even good. See, e.g., Maggie Secara's Compendium of Common Knowledge 1558-1603: Elizabethan Commonplaces for Writers, Actors, and Re-enactors; and other resources found on the instructor's website under history, literature, online texts, and online journals.

This course meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:00 to 4:30 P.M. in the Edgar Fahs Smith Room on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.

As has been noted at the top of this syllabus, the instructor's office is in the Department of Special Collections (also on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library). You can reach him there by telephone (215 898 7088) or in person at that location. Call before showing up; he is not always at his desk. You can communicate with him as well by e-mail at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.


This class will work through discussion rather than lectures. Your attendance and your participation will make a difference in its success--and in your grade. Ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite. Do not let politeness get in the way of making your points.

This course will require six short papers, each of about one to three pages. "Short papers" means SHORT! They are due at intervals specified in the class schedule below. A longer final paper -- a take-home exam, in effect -- of about ten to fifteen pages will be required at the end of the semester. The instructor will assign all topics. They are not up for choice. You can expect occasional unannounced quizzes on the readings. The instructor plans to schedule no final examination. Some additional points:


NOTE: Some material will be distributed in photocopy ("bulkpack"). Books to be purchased are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center, at the corner of 34th and Sansom Streets.


  1. Julia Briggs, This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts 1580-1625, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press paperback)

  2. John Donne, The Complete English Poems of John Donne, ed. A. J. Smth (Penguin paperback)

  3. Margaret Edson, Wit (Boston: Faber & Faber paperback)

  4. George Herbert, Poems and Other Writings, ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (Everyman/Knopf)

  5. Ben Jonson, ed. Ian Donaldson (Oxford University Press paperback)

  6. Andrew Marvell, ed. Frank Kermode and Keith Walker (Oxford University Press paperback)

  7. John Milton, The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy C. Flannagan (Houghton Mifflin)


  1. Students unfamiliar with Christianity -- one of the world's major religions, with which many of the poets we read are significantly concerned in their poems, and about which many students, of any and all backgrounds, know nothing -- should probably read, from the Bible, the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Other Pauline epistles would also be helpful. These books appear in that part of the Bible that follows the (Jewish) Old Testament and the (controverted) Apocrypha, in the part, that is, usually called the New Testament. Recommended translation: the Authorized Version, usually called, in the United States, the King James Bible. If you can find a copy, and find it readable, the Geneva Bible -- an important English-language translation until the A.V., or King James Bible, appeared in 1611, and the version known by Shakespeare -- won't hurt you.

  2. The bookstore has ordered a few copies of A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 2nd ed. (Pennsylvania State University Press paperback). Reading this book will provide useful background, particularly for students unfamiliar with the period's religious controversies.

  3. The instructor also recommends:

    1. any recent short history of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, not just in England

    2. any recent short discussion of English Puritanism and the English Civil War

      Even if you just read the articles on these topics in the Encyclopedia Britannica, that will be MUCH better than nothing.

    3. For intellectual background, two short books, both of them old, might nonetheless prove useful supplements to Julia Briggs (above):

      • first, E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (Vintage paperback);

      • and second, C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge University Press paperback).

  4. A very few books about poetry might be worth consulting during the course of the semester. These include:

    1. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, 4th ed. (Harcourt Brace paperback) -- alas, at a price beyond "outrageous"!

    2. Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, rev. ed. (Random House paperback)

    3. Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, DoubleTake Books (New York: Center for Documentary Studies, in association with Harcourt Brace and Company, 1999)

    4. Timothy Steele, All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Ohio University Press paperback)


If he puts any books on reserve in the Rosengarten Reserve Room (Van Pelt Library), the instructor will distribute separately a list of them. However, students should be aware of the Furness Memorial Library on the sixth floor of Van Pelt, where many of the books for this course will be found. Circulating copies are found mainly on the third floor of Van Pelt.


Week 1--September 9
Introduction to the course

Week 2--September 14 and 16
John Donne

Required reading:


Week 3--September 21 and 23
Donne, continued

Required reading:


Week 4--September 28 and 30
Donne, continued

Required reading:


Class will begin with a short quiz on Briggs.


Week 5--October 5 and 7
Donne, continued

Required reading:


Week 6--October 12 and 14
Ben Jonson

Required reading:


Week 7--October 19 and 21
George Herbert

Required reading:


Week 8--October 26 and 28
Herbert, continued

Required reading:


Week 9--November 2 and 4
Andrew Marvell

Required reading:

Week 10--November 9 and 11
Marvell, continued

Required reading:


Week 11--November 16 and 18
John Milton

Required reading:


Week 12--November 23 and 25
We will have no classes this week

Week 13--November 30 and December 2
Milton, continued

Required reading:


Week 14--December 7 and 9
Milton, continued
Conclusion of course

Required reading:

A final paper is due on Monday, December 20. This is, in effect, a take-home final. THE EXAM CAN BE SEEN HERE.

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

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