English 117: Seminar in Renaissance & 17th Century Literature

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This class examined English writers’ ability to create textual worlds of all sorts by exploring works written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, periods marked by religious controversy, exploration and scientific discovery, foreign and civil war, and the flourishing of literary culture. English writers in the period were deeply invested in writing about the virtues of their own country. The period’s literature often extols the qualities that made England different from (and, in their minds, superior to) other places. Creating their own versions of this nation in literary texts, they fashioned grand utopias and peopled their rich landscapes with beautiful fairy queens, fierce dragons, and brave knights. But they were not simply content to think about England and earth; they were also fascinated by the prospect of other worlds––and different forms of government––outside of both. In addition to glorifying the English nation, then, they constructed what The Tempest’s Miranda terms “brave new worlds” in Heaven, Hell, and even America. The literary works in which these worlds appear demonstrate the beauty and richness of the human imagination as well as its capacity for fear and cruelty.

Our readings covered a wide variety of works from the 16th including Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Book I (and in one section, some of Book III) of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596), and Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana (1595). Shifting into the 17th century, we read poems by Andrew Marvell, Katherine Phillips and John Donne, as well as Book 1 and Book 9 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of New World Called The Blazing World (1666). We also read accounts by English travelers in Europe and the Mediterranean, and by English colonists in the Americas and Ireland. Students wrote short, weekly close reading assignments called “5-on-2s” (five sentences on two elements or units of analysis–two words, two lines, two metaphors) as well as several longer responses to the course material in class meetings. In order to fulfill am HCLAS objective assigned to the course, they also gave oral presentations and developed, in collaboration, a rubric for assessing the strength of their oral communication skills. In addition to three major exams, students completed a take-home final exam, two essay questions that required them to incorporate at least ten works from the class into analyses on broad and narrow topics.

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