English Love Poetry

English 290S-1.01

WF 10:05AM - 11:20AM
Julianne Werlin

This course offers an introduction to English love poetry, focusing on the English Renaissance and its influence. For centuries, love was the most important subject for secular poetry, while poetry was the genre in which the language of passionate love was most elaborately developed and exquisitely refined. The conjunction of erotic passion and verse produced literary masterpieces, as well as conspicuous literary failures. Today, the vital connection between love and poetry is broken; only in pop songs, with their obsessive focus on true love and heartbreak, can we find an equivalent to the Renaissance tradition of love lyric. Why did so many poets write love poems in the Renaissance? And why don’t they any longer?

This class will consider both love and poetry in order to think about this question. Looking closely at the history, culture, and society of Renaissance England and Europe, we will read about evolving approaches to sexuality, the relationship between men and women, marriage and adultery as legal and ethical categories, and religious attitudes toward eroticism. At the same time, the course will serve as an introduction to English poetry both within this extraordinary period and beyond. We will ask fundamental questions about the nature of poetry, such as why it is generally written in lines, why it often uses a special vocabulary and conventions, and how we can understand the relationship between sound and meaning in poetry. In order to do so, we will look at phenomena such as rhythm, rhyme, and verse form. We will also think about prominent features of literary history, such as poetic fame, the connection – and divisions – between popular and elite lyric, and the making of a literary canon.

Most importantly of all, we will read some of the most brilliant writers in the English language. Major authors will include Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, Donne, and Marvell, as well as some of their lesser known – but delightful – contemporaries. We will also look briefly at some important echoes of the Renaissance lyric in nineteenth and twentieth century culture, including Romantic poetry and contemporary music.