Graduate Program

350:616 - Seminar: Spenser and Early Modern Culture

Course No:  350:616
Index: 18108
Distribution Requirement:  A2
Tuesday - 9:50 a.m. 
MU 207

Seminar:  Spenser and Early Modern Culture

Jacqueline Miller

Spenser has been called the most marginalized major author in the English canon, in part because he was a non-aristocratic public servant stationed in Ireland for most of his career. Yet he wrote for England its great national epic and he has been recently described as a writer “central to the formation of early modern Europe.” “O peerlesse Poesie, where is then thy place?” asked Spenser in his first independent publication, and this is a question—endlessly debated in the Renaissance—to which he returned throughout his career, and one that continues to be at stake for his modern readers.

We'll read as much of Spenser as we can--including his pastoral (The Shepheardes Calender), his sonnet sequence (Amoretti), his prose treatise (View of the Present State of Ireland), but with particular focus on The Faerie Queene. We'll consider, among other things: their complex representations of power and gender, and of ethics and politics, during the reign of Elizabeth; his de/constructions of national identity and the idea of a national literary tradition; his probing of the very possibility of writing poetry (its motives and modes) in the last half of the sixteenth century; his exploitation of print medium even as he addressed a coterie audience; the relation between his career as a civil servant and bureaucrat in the colonial government in Ireland and his announced laureate ambitions to reform English poetry and fashion himself as the English Virgil. To this end, we’ll also be reading from some of the principal documents of Renaissance literary criticism (Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie; Sidney's Defense of Poetry); courtesy books (e.g., Castiglione’s The Courtier); Renaissance debates about the nature of womankind and about cross-dressing; the contested status of epic vs. romance; theories (and practice) of pastoral; early modern and modern theories of allegory and representation. Our intensive study of the multifaceted texture of Spenser’s writing and career will thus provide an overview of some of the issues central to early modern literature and culture. Along the way, we’ll discover why Spenser has been the site for some of the most methodologically innovative writing about the early modern period by several recent generations of scholars and critics. Students so inclined will also have the opportunity to consider Spenser in relation to his major English successors and predecessors (Chaucer was Spenser’s “well of English undefiled”; Spenser was Milton’s “sage and serious poet” and Yeats’ “poet of the delighted senses”; Keats reportedly read through the first volume of The Faerie Queene "as a young horse would through a spring meadow — ramping!"; Woolf advised readers to “make a dash for The Faery Queen and give yourself up to it.”).

Prior familiarity with Spenser is neither required nor assumed (nor is primary specialization in the Renaissance). Given Spenser’s relentless self-reflexivity, any course on Spenser is also a course on the history of representational and interpretive practices. The structure of the course will allow each student's critical and theoretical predilections to shape the nature of his or her contributions (oral and written) to this class. Coursework will include a substantial end-of-term paper, plus an oral presentation and/or short exploratory paper during the semester.