Early 17th Century Poetry

ENG 730R (01): Early 17th Century Poetry
M 18:00-20:30
Todd Sammons

Renaissance Lyric Poetry


This is a course on the Renaissance lyric, i.e., the short poem in English from 1500-1660. Although the course is foursquare in the Literary Studies in English concentration, I do hope that it will also be attractive to students in Creative Writing, as we will certainly be attending to the craft of these brilliantly constructed poems.

We will start the course with a week exploring the medieval English lyric, so as to gain an orientation to some of the genres, themes, and voices that came before the poets that we will be reading. Then we will spend another week on probably the most important single predecessor poet for almost all of our poets: Francesco Petrarch. Following that week, we will read Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy (aka An Apology for Poetry) as a lead-in to early Tudor lyric poets to include John Skelton, George Turberville, and George Gascoigne. We will then spend a couple of weeks on the so-called courtier poets: Sir Thomas Wyatt; Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke; and Sir Walter Ralegh. Next up would be the sonnet sequences, specifically the “big three”: Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (“star-lover” and “[loved] star”); Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (“little love poems”); and, of course, William Shakespeare’s Sonnets. (Here is where students in the class will on your own read a sonnet sequence other than one of the “big three” and then make a mini-anthology based on it; there are dozens of Renaissance English sonnet sequences extant; I will also ask you to use the Early English Books Online [EEBO] database for your mini-anthology, as well as any modern edition[s] of your sequence that our library has or that you can find online.)

We will then shift from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, with six weeks arranged in three pairings: John Donne one week and Andrew Marvell the other; Ben Jonson one week and then a few of the “Tribe of Ben” the other (probably Robert Herrick, Edmund Waller, and Sir John Suckling); and George Herbert one week and a few religious poets the other (at least Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne).

We also will “de-masculine” the period by treating one woman poet each class. Right now, that list will include Queen Elizabeth I; Isabella Whitney; Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; Aemelia Lanyer; Lady Mary Wroth; Rachel Speght; Katherine Phillips; and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.


Even though this is indeed a heavy reading course with an emphasis on primary texts, you will engage with two sets of secondary material: English Renaissance literary criticism itself (briefly) and modern literary criticism (more extensively). We will all read Sidney’s Defense/Apology; in addition, each individual member of the seminar will read one piece of English Renaissance literary criticism on her/his own, summarize it for the class on Laulima, and report on it in class. For the later part of the semester, we will read a few (one or two per class) critical essays out of the Norton Critical editions listed below (and one or two that you will not have to buy but that I will put essays from on Laulima); for Petrarch, the early Tudor poets, the courtier poets, and the sonneteers, I will find and post on Laulima appropriate pieces of modern criticism for the class to read (for instance, part of Stanley Fish’s brilliant early book on Skelton). I will also ask each of you once during the semester to find the most up-to-date piece of literary criticism on one of our poets/poems that is available—again, to summarize on Laulima and to report on in class. Finally, I am hoping, as already mentioned, that some creative writing graduate students will take the seminar, as we would welcome their insights into the sometimes exquisite craft that went into the poems that we will be reading.


At the end of the semester, students will be able to demonstrate that they (a) are familiar with the sweep/range of the poets (female and male) who wrote during this period, with the political/social/religious/intellectual contexts within which these poets wrote, with how literary fashion(s) changed during the period, and with how carefully crafted the poems were; (b) are able to identify many of the genres that these poets used; (c) understand a few elementary principles of textual editing, including establishing a text and selecting representative/excellent poems; (d) understand how such contemporary literary criticism as there was impinged (or not) on the short poems written during this period; and (e) have gained a basic acquaintance with some of the voluminous modern-day literary criticism on these poets.


Frequent short letters responding to the reading (primary and/or secondary)
One or two in-class expositions of a favorite poem, to include some research
A short written and oral report on a piece of contemporary (i.e., Renaissance) literary
A short written and oral report on an up-to-date piece of literary criticism on one of our
A mini-anthology of a sonnet sequence
A long seminar paper (or a series of poems, with a critical introduction or postscript)


Medieval English Lyrics, ed. R. T. Davies (Northwestern, 1991).
Five Courtier Poets of the English Renaissance, ed. Robert M. Bender (Washington
Square, 1967).
John Donne’s Poetry, 3rd edition, ed. Donald R. Dixon (Norton Critical, 2006).
Seventeenth-Century British Poetry, 1600-1660, ed. Gregory Chaplin and John P.
Rumrich (Norton Critical, 2005).
Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women’s Verse, ed. Germaine
Greer et al. (Farrar, 1989).
Early Modern English Poetry: A Critical Companion, ed. Patrick Cheney, Andrew
Hadfield, and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr. (Oxford, 2007).