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Poesy’s Place: Early Modern England and Today

What is the place of fiction in our lives? In the early modern period, fiction—known as “poesy”—did not have just one place. It was written at court and in the country; it imagined situations in magical forests, London’s bustling marketplaces, the battlefields of central England, and scientific laboratories; it was written to delight as much as to teach. Considered an “act of imitation,” rhetoricians, scientists, priests, monarchs, and playwrights all practiced poesy—some to gain or assert power, some to speculate about the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.


Engaging with plays, poetry, and prose from the late-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries, we will discuss poesy’s various places and functions in an attempt to answer what we can learn from it, and why we still read it today. The course will include selections from some of the major British and continental European writers of the early modern period, including Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, Edmund Spenser, Lucy Hutchinson, Mary Sidney Herbert, Philip Sidney, Baruch Spinoza, Francis Bacon, Mary Wroth, Ben Jonson, and Andrew Marvell.

No prior knowledge of early modern literature is required or expected. All students are welcome, especially those interested in the history of ideas, the history of science, and philosophy.

Requirements: Active and respectful class participation, 3 papers of increasing length, other short writing assignments.

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Statue of "Willie the Silent"