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Dissertations

This page has been updated as of October 15, 2015. 

Fallon, Samuel. “Personal Effects: Persona and Literary Culture in Elizabethan England.” Proquest Dissertations and Theses. Yale University, 2015. 

When he introduced Pierce Penilesse to his readers in 1592, Thomas Nashe did not call the desperate pamphleteer a persona, and he did not describe him as a literary device. Pierce, he wrote instead, was a “paper monster,” not fashioned but “begotten” into something curiously like life. The next decade would bear Nashe’s striking description out. Answered, ridiculed, and petitioned in a series of pamphlets, Pierce seemed to take on a life of his own, inspiring other authors to appropriate and rewrite him in their own works. “Personal Effects” studies the remarkable proliferation of personae like him in the 1580s and 1590s, a period during which the device found itself at the center of a rapidly expanding, but also a deeply uncertain, literary culture.

During the last decades of the sixteenth century, the expansion of the book trade, the migration of manuscript poetry into print, and the emergence of a consumer reading public changed the cultural status of literature. As its pace and volume grew, literary production began, in one critic’s words, “to be conceived as a valuable activity in its own right, with its own personnel, rules, history, and conventions.” But the burgeoning discourse on literary production was also an anxious one, in part because it was a discourse whose central concepts—not least the concept of authorship—remained in important ways undeveloped, and in part because increased publication brought literary writing into contact with an unnervingly diffuse and anonymous reading public. The fictional personae that I study in this project came into being as remedies for the anonymity and distance that print circulation seemed to impose on literary discourse, distance that was countered by the personae’s vivid imaginary presence. In their enduring afterlives, moreover, they provided a set of terms for the discussion of questions of poetic identity, authority, and merit. My dissertation finds in these personae a window onto a new history of English literary culture in the 1580s and 1590s, a history that captures that culture’s negotiations of aesthetic value, discursive authority, and literary identity as they unfolded. It was in the paper monsters it begot, I argue, that a burgeoning literary field became visible to itself.

Early modern personae were powerful fictions because they were collective ones, fashioned and refashioned over and over again by various writers, readers, and publishers. Each of the dissertation’s chapters focuses on a particular persona, moving between its original version and its rewritings by others. The first chapter examines a series of ghost stories that resurrected the romance writer Robert Greene after his death in 1592—stories, I argue, that turned Greene’s ghost into an allegory of the eerily virtual world of print publicity. My second chapter examines Colin Clout’s paradoxical status as both Edmund Spenser’s most textually mobile character—cited and addressed by a range of other poets—and a nostalgic symbol of oral presence. The project’s third chapter traces the paths of Philip Sidney’s two personae, Philisides and Astrophil, from The Arcadia and Astrophil and Stella through a series of prose works and pastoral elegies that worked to reclaim the posthumously published poet for the privacy and exclusivity of the coterie. The fourth chapter traces the literary critical discourse that emerged around Thomas Nashe’s alter ego Pierce Penilesse in Nashe’s pamphlet quarrel with Gabriel Harvey. As I suggest in a coda, the persona’s hold on the imagination waned as it was displaced in the seventeenth century by the emergent concept of literary authorship—a concept, ironically, that the persona had helped to create. The modern author could come into being, I maintain, only once the persona had prepared the way by articulating and animating a specifically literary form of identity.

Harrison, Matthew P. “Tear him for his bad verses: Poetic Value and Literary History in Early Modern England.” Proquest Dissertations and Theses. Princeton University, 2015.

“Tear Him for His Bad Verses” tracks the varied language of poetic badness in the English Renaissance—parody, insult, and criticism—exploring the ways it allows poets to confuse received poetic ideas and to invent new forms. Bad poetry becomes at last a sort of green world: not a permanent escape from social, formal, or cultural rules but a place in which they are relaxed, and can take on different shapes and forms.

My first chapter explores how Nicholas Breton and Edmund Spenser transform conventional gestures of self-deprecation to negotiate the competing demands of classical precedent, rhetorical theory, class, and ethical impact. To read Spenser’s “rudeness” is to emphasize badness’s potential to keep such elements in suspension, rather than to resolve their contradictions in the image of the later laureate.

My second chapter proposes that, for Philip Sidney, secular lyric must always be a failure. Astrophil and Stella auditions multiple constructions of poetic value, only to twist them into contradictions in brilliant displays of wit. Yet even as the poems exhaust arguments for poetry, shattering hopes of persuasion, mimesis, or praise, they remain “sweet”: clever and beautiful. The sequence arrives less at a defense of poetry than a voice that prospers in its indefensibility.

My third chapter turns to As You Like It to consider how that play’s paradoxical concern for the production of proper style and for the separation of style from value engages contemporary anxieties about the respective values of taste and techné, sincerity and skill. Orlando’s comic ineptness makes literal the conventions of artistic self-deprecation as a hope for a reader and a way of reading beyond evaluation.

My final chapter argues that stage bad poetry has a double function: both primer in poetic norms and Rorshach demanding interpretation. Reading Love’s Labours Lost alongside the linguistic absurdity of inept poets from Lyly’s Sir Thopas through Jonson’s Crispinus, I show that the theater’s abiding interest in deviation aids the consolidation of English poetic norms. In the stage poet and poem, a consensus takes shape on how to relate poetry’s sound to its sense. 

Jennings, Lisa Gay. “The Alchemy of Sexuality in Early Modern English Lyric Poetry.” Proquest Dissertations and Theses. The Florida State University, 2015. 

My dissertation, The Alchemy of Sexuality in Early Modern English Lyric Poetry examines the complex relationship of poetry, sexuality and religion to alchemy in early modern England. I analyze poetic representations of transgressive sexuality by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Carew. What emerges from my study is the profound link between alchemical metaphors and poetic expressions of sexuality. These poetic expressions of sexuality develop the poets’ interrogation of gender hierarchy in early modern England. This dissertation has theoretical implications for how we read early modern English poetry, but there are also physiological dimensions. I examine representations of sex and the disciplined Foucauldian early modern body. Notwithstanding, my primary focus of this disciplined body are the humoral processes that were thought to govern early modern physiology and their Galenic ties to alchemy. As my study makes clear, alchemy represents an interventionist conjunction within the Galenic-Humoral economy that predominated in early modern England. In each chapter I illuminate the means by which the poets utilize alchemical iconography to codify a transgressive body and therefore illuminate an illicit sexuality.

In the introductory chapter, I outline the history of alchemy and its relationship to sexuality and religion, and by extension to the early modern body. I end the introduction by asserting that the poets’ use of alchemy is not only a symbol of the creative imagination, but also an attempt to map the contours of desire and the poetic mind.

Chapter two focuses on books 2 and 3 of Spenser’s epic, The Faerie Queene. In this chapter I seek to develop a theory which will account for the excessive erotica found in these books. At first glance the anachronistic term of pornography would seem to account for the sexual activity found in these books. Nonetheless, pornography’s contextual later development, and the slipperiness of the term fail to accommodate early modern theories of erotic reading and the disruptive emotions engendered by such readings. Therefore, I suggest the term of passionate discourse which more fully explains the voyeuristic nature of Spenser’s epic and his ability to suspend the assault on the body which erotica could potentially provoke.

In chapter three I continue my examination of alchemy and its ties to sexuality by a detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s “procreative sonnets.” I discuss Shakespeare’s use of alchemy which enables his creation of a sexually appropriate hermaphrodite thus challenging regimes against the practice of sodomy.

While chapter three focuses on Shakespeare’s hermaphroditic creation, chapter four considers Donne’s appropriation of alchemy in order to substantiate what I term an alchemic transcendental sexuality. Donne’s alchemic sexuality is constituted by the metaphors of alchemy as well as the religious discourse of Familism. As with Spenser and Shakespeare, Donne ultimately challenges sexual understandings of the body and the systems that sought to impose artificial and sexual boundaries on the early modern body.

Similarly, chapter five contemplates sexual challenges to religious understanding of the body. My focus is Thomas Nashe’s “The Choise of Valentines” and Thomas Carew’s “A Rapture.” Both Nashe and Carew use their speakers to trope sexual performance as alchemical labor and to interrogate women’s reproductive potential.

Lastly, I conclude this study by commenting on the aesthetic success of the poems. I believe that those poems which have found a prominent place in the English literary canon owe their prominence to how well they have integrated the discourses of alchemy, sex, and religion in their more overtly sexual poetry. Yet ultimately, this dissertation is about the process of embodiment, and therefore I assert that each poet in this dissertation anchor themselves in the slippery terrain of alchemy in a concerted effort to find meaning among the chaos of the body. 

Lerner, Ross. “Framing Fanaticism: Religion, Violence, and the Reformation Literature of Self-Annihilation.” Proquest Dissertations and Theses. Princeton University, 2015. 

A study of the centrality of religious fanaticism to the development of European Renaissance politics and poetics, Framing Fanaticism suggests that the religious fanatic’s claim to divine agency created an epistemological and representational crisis—an incapacity to know and depict whether human or divine will drove sacred violence. This crisis resulted in two tendencies: the targeting of fanaticism as a threat and the engagement with it as an epistemological and poetic problem. This dissertation explores how fanaticism’s violence became inseparable from the basic problems with which modernity commenced: skepticism (how we can know anything about the passions and actions of others and ourselves), causation (how we can know whether and how divine agency functions within the world), and power (how we can know what shapes who we are and how we behave). 

The introduction reconstructs how the meaning of fanaticism evolved in relation to theories of state and mind in the Renaissance, from Martin Luther to John Locke, locating in the radical Anabaptist claim that self-annihilation could turn an individual into an instrument of God’s violence a primal scene for fanaticism. Chapter two turns to Edmund Spenser’s representation of “organs” of divine might to show how fanaticism at once resembles and threatens The Faerie Queene’s allegorical project. My third chapter traces how John Donne uses sonnets to experiment formally with the self-annihilation required for the passive performance of God’s violent will that Samson and Christ inimitably exemplify. Fanaticism reveals to Donne that devotional poetic making itself may prepare for, but also necessarily postpones, the self-loss required for both martyrdom and fanatical revolt. In contrast to Donne, Thomas Hobbes reinterpreted Samson and Christ to exclude religious justifications of rebellion or self-sacrifice. My fourth chapter contends that Hobbes redefined fanaticism as a product of passionate reading and cognitive breakdown and yet struggled to distinguish Christ from a self-annihilating fanatic. The final chapter claims that John Milton transformed tragedy to address the problem of fanaticism in Samson Agonisties. Milton reveals that tragic unknowability is the major aesthetic, epistemological and ethical problem with which the witness of fanatical violence confronts modernity. 

Wayland, Luke. Sanctifying a Darke Conceit: Seeing the Bible in The Faerie Queene.”  Harvard Divinity School, 2015. 

Approaching the poem from the perspective of reception history, the present dissertation seeks to show that the Bible’s role in The Faerie Queene is far more pervasive than has usually been recognized. Rather than see the biblical material as the domain of only certain sections—notably, Book I and perhaps Books II and V—I propose that it is to be seen as a meaningful presence throughout the poem. Indeed, I will argue that it provides a previously unnoticed, unifying structure to the whole. 

I begin by giving a brief sketch of the Bible in Spenser’s early life. From here, I draw upon the resources of modern biblical scholarship—specifically, Childs’ “canonical approach”—to describe the way Spenser read the Bible and, consequently, the ways in which he alluded to it. I go on to discuss the notions of “typology” and “allegory,” providing the foundation for a discussion of Spenser’s reading not only of the Bible, but of the ongoing narrative of history. Then follows an exploration of the ways Spenser seeks to relate the various legacies of the Classical and biblical past to his Christian, humanist present, which culminates in a description of the Christian canon’s structuring role within the poem. This leads to a reflection on this structure’s significance through consideration of the various instances of books and of reading that occur in Book I. I then take up this theme again in Book III, in the transformation of Malbecco and in the idolatrous Tabernacle-Temple of Busirane. Drawing upon the early modern discourse concerning images and idols, I conclude with a discussion of The Faerie Queene as a unified, poetic sign pointing to the Divine Presence—a function typified in the discarded ending of Book III.

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"Dissertations," Spenser Review (Fall 2015). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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