In this course we will study the major poetic works of Edmund Spenser and John Milton: The Shepheardes Calender, The Faerie Queene, Lycidas, A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle (aka Comus), Paradise Lost, and either—depending on class interest—Samson Agonistes or Paradise Regained. We will also have a look at selections from each author's political prose: Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland and Milton's divorce and regicide tracts.
The works of Spenser and Milton open up crucial topics in studies of literary criticism and literary influence. First, these two authors together introduce just about every interesting topic current in Renaissance literary criticism. Among the topics we will consider are: genre and poetic design; literary history and literary influence; politics and religion; gender and sexuality; colonization and imperialism; landscape and ecopoetics; books and print culture; physics, geology, geography, and cosmography; affect and emotion; and ideas of authorship and of authorial career. Second, Spenser’s and Milton’s fingerprints are everywhere in the literature of the ensuing centuries. Just as Spenser was in many ways Milton’s unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable father, so too can Milton be credited, in Harold Bloom’s terms, with inculcating an anxiety of influence in every author who follows him. Spenser and Milton are the well-thumbed readings of especially the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, influencing everyone from Thomas Jefferson to George Eliot.
One of the advantages of taking a course on two major authors is that you learn a great deal about how the critical winds have shifted over time, and about where the cutting edge of scholarship is at the present moment. Another advantage is that you quickly become an expert in the kind of studying you may have to do for a “major author” field for your doctoral comprehensive exams. The main reason to read Spenser and Milton, however, is for the pleasure and the challenge of their absorbing, intricate poetry: more complex than Marlowe, more radical than Shakespeare, more sprawling than anyone.
Assigned work will include a short paper, a conference-length paper, and class presentations on secondary readings.