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17th-Century Poetry

ENGL 331.301
instructor(s):
TR 3-4:30

Reading poetry from the later English Renaissance, we briefly survey several poets from this period and concentrate particularly on 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 eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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 of literally 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.

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.