Erotic Poetry in 16th- and 17th-century England
Focusing on the relation between poetic form and content, this course will study the fascinating, obsessive, and often grotesque depiction of erotic desire in Renaissance lyric poetry. The lyric is the voice of contemplation and persuasion, and so it is an ideal vehicle for exploring the ambivalence, narcissism, insecurity, and hostility that almost inevitably accompany the seemingly beneficent emotion of love. And because the Renaissance saw a clear analogy between the relationships of man and woman, sovereign and subject, and Christ and Church, this poetry’s seemingly private utterances also offered a forum for discussing anxieties about knowledge, ambition, gender, politics, and religion. Given this rhetorical dimension, it is no surprise that the formal properties of lyric poetry (structure, rhythm, meter) register the dilemmas of desire and persuasion as such: what is the relation between convention and expression? at what point does charm become manipulation? can we ever hope to recognize our own true motives, much less those of others?
We will begin by examining the vicissitudes of the Petrarchan sonnet as it was translated into an English tradition by such authors as Surrey, Wyatt, Gascoigne, Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Wroth. We will then look at the relationship between erotic desire and religious devotion in Mary Sidney Herbert’s psalms, Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and George Herbert’s and Richard Crashaw’s experimental verse forms. Finally, we will consider how the vocabulary of love allows such poets as Carew, Lovelace, Marvell, and Milton to participate in the political, intellectual, and religious debates of the English Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration. In addition to these primary texts, we will fill out the reading list with some current scholarship on the topic and some theoretical attempts to understand what love means (Plato and Freud, among others). A series of short writing assignments will culminate in a longer research paper.