Renaissance Studies | English | SIU Carbondale

Southern Illinois University



College of Liberal Arts

Renaissance Studies

The program in Renaissance literature at SIUC encompasses a broad range of dramatic and non-dramatic specialties.  In particular, it focuses on the relationship between religion and literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, especially depictions of desire, futurity, bodies, and subjectivity. It combines close readings of texts by canonical and non-canonical authors with a range of critical approaches, including new formalism, historicism (old and new), poststructuralist theory, feminism, performance studies, aesthetic theory, and cultural studies. While specific offerings vary from year to year, Renaissance faculty offer courses organized around authors—Shakespeare, Milton, Metaphysical poets—as well as seminars organized around genre and conceptual topics, with special emphases in lyric poetry, secular and post-secular studies, early modern aesthetics, and women writers.  Recent seminar topics include “Plainness and the Plain Style”; “What Happens in Lyric?: 1588-1688”; “Apocalyptic Politics: Milton and Political Radicalism”; “Desire, Religion, and Desiring Religion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry”; “How to Do Things With Martyrs, or, Reading and Interpreting Martyrdom in Early Modern England.”

SIU Carbondale is also a member of the Newberry Library’s Center for Renaissance Studies Consortium, allowing graduate students access to a world-class research library as well as Newberry Renaissance programs:


Plainness and the Plain Style: Often in early modern scholarship, the “plain style” serves as a catch-all term for what seems prosaic, uninspired, or aesthetically bad.  To use perhaps the most famous example, the plain style is chiefly to blame for the tedium of Milton’s Paradise Regained, his soporific sequel to Paradise Lost.  This class seeks to reappraise the aesthetic value of the plain style, while at the same time moving beyond a preoccupation with it.  That reappraisal stems from the observation that the assiduous avoidance of form is no less of a formal investment than its metaphysical, baroque, or elaborate manipulation.  The maintenance of a formal vacuum seems, in some ways, more strenuously formalistic than an author borrowing the tools of form at his/her disposal.  Does a rejection of form require a more intense understanding of it?  Is plainness, then, really the new baroque in early modernity?  If the determination of a work’s plainness cannot be made solely on aesthetic grounds, what do we mean then—and how do we identify—the plain style?  In other words, is “plain” a misnomer?  More largely, is baroque vs. plain—a dichotomy that tacitly structures much of stylistic analysis in early modern studies—a false one?  In order to move beyond a preoccupation with aesthetic value, the class not only approaches the plain style from a formal perspective, but considers the theological, political, gendered, and class/cultural meanings its usage invoked.  For instance, we will examine the potentially radical uses of plainness by marginalized groups, especially religious sectaries and political dissidents (John Lilburne, John Webster, and Samuel How) and women writers (Elizabeth Melvill, Anna Trapnel, Hester Shaw, and An Collins).  In addition to non-canonical figures, these issues will be taken up in the work of authors such as Robert Crowley, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, John Milton, and John Bunyan.  Though the seminar will focus on the early modern period, participants are welcome to think and write about plainness in their areas of specialization.       

Debt, Loyalty, and Lyric in the Seventeenth Century: How does one own something? How does one owe something? These are central preoccupations during the seventeenth century, a century that witnesses both the first modern bourgeois revolution and the rise of modern banking and finance capital. This course explores what a variety of short poems have to tell us about the intersection of these various concepts and, just as importantly, how concepts of debt and ownership impinge on modern notions of sovereignty and obedience. To put a very fine point on it, do you own your own obedience and then trade it to a sovereign? In what sense is allegiance a debt? In what sense a choice? This course then explores how lyrics during this period imagine allegiance and its relationship to exchange. If the king, like God, does not really need the gift of our loyalty, then the notion of a bartered political transaction between subject and monarch seems fundamentally misguided. Cavalier, loyalist, and even purportedly more revolutionary metaphysical lyrics, in their refusal to conceive of governance according to the terms of contract theory, may provide a means of imagining economic, if not political freedom.

What is Lyric?: Renaissance Short Poems and the Definition of Poetry: What is lyric?  How is it different from any other type of poetry, let alone from other types of literature?  And is there a way to define it without recourse to such comparative procedures? Through the lens of short lyric poems, this course examines the conflicted definition of poetry in Renaissance England, from the fight over rhyme and quantitative verse, to the distinctions between history, poetry, and philosophy.  In this respect, we will explore whether lyric is primarily a musical designation, a catch-all category that refers to the length (temporal or spatial) of the poem, a form dependent on the type of presumed speaker, a genre that attempts immediacy in contrast to more representational forms, or something else. We will read short poems across a wide variety of traditions—Petrarchan, pseudo-Ovidian, cavalier, metaphysical, pastoral, elegiac, encomiastic, epigrammatic, obscene—in order to explore how this period imagined verse as well as what we can learn about poetry from this period that took poetic power so seriously.  In short, this is a survey of Renaissance lyric with a point: inductively defining what we mean by poetry, lyric, and verse (as well as acknowledging that these terms might not be synonymous), instead of always defining via what it is not—epic, narrative, prose, or drama.

What Happens in Lyrics?: 1588-1688: What happens in lyrics? The century under consideration here is dotted with pivotal, catastrophic turning points, from the defeat of the Armada, to the Gunpowder Plot, to the beheading of Charles I, to the Restoration, to the Great Fire, to the “Glorious” Revolution. Although this seminar is concerned with modern concepts of the event, it is primarily concerned with how early modern religious verse imagines cataclysmic, catastrophic, dramatic, or pivotal events—and whether these events can even by said to “happen” in these lyrics.  Starting with Jonathan Culler’s contention, revised from Alice Fulton’s, that “narrative is about what happens next; lyric is about what happens now,” this seminar examines how lyric poetry imagines events—in history and in poetry—in order to get at the most basic of literary questions: what does lyric poetry do? Certainly, part of our discussion will revolve around lyric as a form: what formal features distinguish it from other types of verse?  Does lyric possess a special relationship, even an a-signifying one, to sound or music? In addition, this seminar will examine whether our modern critical tools accurately represent what these poems attempt.  For example, are lyrics even the enunciation of a speaking subject, however fictionalized? Or rather, do they demand that we imagine poetry as issuing from something other than a person, subject, subjectivity?  In short, do we install an anachronistic model of the event in lyric when we imagine it as the enunciation of a subject or fictional persona? This seminar then explores the intersection between these basic formal determinations and lyrics’ presentation of events, happenings, occurrences, and history in early modernity.

Apocalyptic Politics: Milton and Political Radicalism: John Milton’s contention, in The Christian Doctrine, that hatred of God's enemies is a religious duty has frequently unnerved readers and critics. In fact, several critics, even before the events of 11 September 2001, worried that Milton’s last major poem, Samson Agonistes, advocated terrorism and exonerated its violent protagonist. These debates, within Milton studies and beyond, have only intensified in recent years. In contrast to these recent quarrels about the political import of Milton’s work, Samson Agonistes, Paradise Regained, and Paradise Lost have all, at one time or another, been interpreted as retreats from the world of politics and affairs of state. Often, such interpretations describe Milton as awaiting the second coming of Christ and thus divorced from day-to-day political engagements. In other words, the assumption in such criticism is that one cannot both eagerly anticipate the end of the world and still participate in it. This seminar seeks to explore the type of political engagement present in Milton’s major poems. How do they describe political involvement? Does reading these poems have any political effect, then or now? What is the relationship between literature and politics?

How to Do Things With Martyrs, or, Reading and Interpreting Martyrdom in Early Modern England: Martyrdom is, even at the most basic of etymological levels, a testimony or witness to the truth of a religious doctrine, position, or devotional allegiance. Yet the spectacular form of martyrdom can also, as Milton notes, cloak the obstinacy of the heretic: “if to die for the testimony of his own conscience, be anough to make him Martyr, what Heretic dying for direct blasphemie, as some have done constantly, may not boast a Martyrdom?” (Eikonoklastes). Given the apparent similarities between steadfast faith and obdurate error, in both visual and narrative media, how can observers or readers ever separate true from false martyrdoms? As with all hermeneutic circles, it appears that one must understand in advance whether a given martyr or martyrology testifies to a religious truth or remains mired in religious error. In other words, following Augustine, Heidegger, and Gadamer, to interpret the event or text correctly, one must understand it, at least in part, beforehand. This seminar seeks to explore the ways in which early modern English audiences responded to this visual and textual conundrum during the Reformation, Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restoration periods and developed a variety of mechanisms for separating true and false martyrdoms. As such, English martyrologies and their dramatic and poetic appropriations ultimately impact our modern understandings of what it means to read a literary text aright.

Desire, Religion, and Desiring Religion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry: How does seventeenth-century religious poetry represent, motivate, or produce religious desire? Is religious desire a species of sexual or erotic desire? Is sexual desire merely a species of religious desire? What configurations of desire occur in this poetry? What, if any, light do these configurations shine on modern understandings of desire? The rationale for focusing, at least initially, on religious desire, instead of desire more generally, stems from Debora Shuger’s brief outline of what it means to live in an early modern religious culture: “Religion during this period supplies the primary language of analysis. It is the cultural matrix for explorations of virtually every topic: kingship, selfhood, rationality, language, marriage, ethics, and so forth. Such subjects are, again, not masked by religious discourse but articulated in it; they are considered in relation to God and the human soul. That is what it means to say that the English Renaissance was a religious culture, not simply a culture whose members generally were religious.” (Debora Kuller Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990], 6). This seminar explores how early modern poets imagined desire for God, for salvation, for faith, for religiosity itself and how they imagined desire, love, and need in general. In the course of reading this poetry, we may wish to challenge the simple opposition between sacred and profane, as well as the comforting assumption that we can recognize the distinction between religious and secular discourses, in the early modern period and today. Finally, in reading this poetry in conjunction with queer, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist accounts of desire, our aim is to do more than simply apply these theories to these early modern texts. Rather, this seminar will consistently ask how early modern religious desire reflects on or even explicates modern theorizations.

Recent MA Theses

  • Brian Cook, “Reading Wholes in George Herbert’s Temple
  • J.T. Lorino, “They actively serve who stand and wait: The rudiment of faithful obedience rousing patient activity in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes

Recent PhD Dissertations

  • Jay Simons, Purging Satire: Jonson, the Poetomachia, and the Reformation of Renaissance Satire
  • Everett Neasman, Shakespeare’s Clown-Servants: From Late Feudal to Proto-Capitalist Economies in Early Modern England