LIT534: English Reformation Poetry - New Saint Andrews College

LIT534: English Reformation Poetry



Spring 2017
Dr. Jayson C. Grieser


In this course, students will familiarize themselves with some of the foundational poems of English literature and grasp the importance of the Bible, as recovered in the Reformation, as a deep source for English poetry.

The main authors and works central to this course include, Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poetry, selections from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, selections from John Donne and George Herbert, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Students will seek to interpret these texts, giving attention to important aspects of poetry and drama: syntax, meter, diction, rhyme, metaphor, theme, character, and the poetic stanza and line.

Students will deepen their understanding of these primary texts by engaging in conversation with leading scholars or schools of thought and their interpretive approaches; students will express their own opinions in papers and weekly online posts, adding their voice to the scholarly conversation. Finally, students will ponder the importance of these works globally, that is, within the western intellectual and literary tradition and their ongoing value for students of the liberal arts today.

Course Objectives

Students should be able to interact with the following questions:

  1. What are the biblical sources behind Spenser’s The Faerie Queene?
  2. Why does Milton think Spenser, as poet, is a better teacher than the great scholastic philosophers like Aquinas? Do you agree?
  3. What is Spenser’s teaching on holiness? What is uniquely Protestant about it?
  4. Why does C.S. Lewis call the best poetry of the English Renaissance and Reformation period “golden”?
  5. What does Philip Sidney mean when he says only the poet creates a perfected, a “golden” nature, while Nature herself offers only a “brazen” world?
  6. What arguments does Sidney make on behalf of poetry and fiction in The Defense of Poesy? Which arguments do you find most convincing?
  7. What are the unique formal features of the Spenser’s romance epic, Shakespeare’s dramatic work, Herbert’s and Donne’s lyric, and Milton’s classical epic?
  8. How would you compare and contrast (a) the poetry of Spenser in Faerie Queene Book 1 and that of Milton in Paradise Lost and (b) the purpose of each poem?
  9. Is the Merchant of Venice a Christian comedy? How is it informed by the New Testament?
  10. Milton’s Paradise Lost fills in the gaps in the biblical story. Is this something you can get behind? Why or why not?
  11. What is poetry for? How might we best communicate its importance in the classroom today?
  12. Recite some favorite lines of English Reformation poetry from the syllabus from memory. Why does this poetry matter to you?

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