Poetry from the Metaphysicals and Jonson to the Restoration; prose from Burton and Bacon to Hobbes and Milton.
In the England of 1601, the disciplines of politics, philosophy, science, medicine, law, and literature were all to some degree subsumed by the master discourse of religion. But by 1701, the human and the natural sciences had begun to emerge in something like their modern forms, while (at least in theory) religious sectarianism had started to give way to the Liberal principle of toleration.
The century in-between was marked by awful violence, extraordinary social upheaval, and urgent intellectual inquiry. Religious radicals challenged the ancient authorities of crown and church in a Puritan revolution, and were challenged in turn by a monarchist backlash. Political structures, sexual mores, and philosophical paradigms shifted … and then shifted again. And new and disturbing questions emerged. For example: If kings did not rule by divine right, what other forms of political authority might be imagined? If religious disputes could not be settled with certainty, what forms of certain knowledge might be found? Could the concept of an immutable nature — or of an immutable God — survive the new discoveries of science? Should we denigrate bodily desire as sinful, regard it neutrally as the manifestation of an amoral reproductive instinct, or elevate it to the peak of human experience? What was the ideal relation of the body to the mind, of the mind to the self, and of the self to others? And so on.
Modernity originates in the great intellectual crises of seventeenth-century European thought; to understand the period is therefore to understand where we “moderns” come from. In this course we will read several key writers—Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Hutchinson, Behn, and others—all of whom grappled with the questions above, producing some of the most difficult and daring poetry in English literary history in the process. We will focus particularly on the issues of theology, sexuality, and self-knowledge as explored in their work.