Renaissance and 17th Century essay questions

A.      Identify specific ways in which changes in composition of the audience, the economics of producing and making money from literature, and the technologies and means of dissemination for literature impacted the literature being written in the Renaissance and 17th century.  Focus on cause-effect and give some examples of the resulting impact.
With the Renaissance came not only a rebirth of the classics but also an emergence of new ideas, social, political, and economic, which impacted the literature being written in the Renaissance and 17th Century.  Accessibility to literature was limited, and “poetry in particular circulated in manuscript, copied by reader after reader into personal anthologies . . . or reproduced by professional scribes for a fee” (Greenblatt 547). Moreover, using writing as a career was impossible during the 16th century, as writers sold their works to publishing companies, often for a very low price.  Further complicating literary access, the state censored literary production, even giving a charter to the Stationers’ Company to license certain books. The crown’s hand in literary production shows the intertwined nature of literature and the court, and authors like Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Earl of Surrey thought of themselves as “courtiers, statesmen, and landowners; poetry was for them an indispensable social grace and a deeply pleasurable, exalted form of play” (548).  Authors often got financial rewards from patrons, but, primarily, writing was not a career, just a privilege because of a higher social standing. Therefore, writing produced was typically the result of funding and patronage preference. This funding still resulted in a variety of forms and modes, presumably because of the Renaissance mixture of classical influences and new ideas.  The emerging nationalism and the humanist appreciation for classics led to the translations of international works into English.  Furthermore, two forms that gained popularity during the Renaissance and 17th Century were the pastoral and the heroic, both rooted in classical literary traditions but still subject to innovations by Renaissance writers.  Finally, the mix of literature and an improved economy came together to make drama and theater more public with the establishment of permanent, free-standing theaters for Elizabethan theater.

B. Discuss Sidney’s key poetic theories as laid out in APOLOGY FOR POETRY in relation to how major Renaissance authors deploy these theories in their own writings.  Suggested authors and work include More (UTOPIA), Spenser (FAERIE QUEENE, “Shepheardes Calendar,” “Epithalamion”), Marlowe (DR. FAUSTUS), Milton (PARADISE LOST, “Lycidas”)
In Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney presents key poetic theories that influenced major Renaissance authors. Sidney first postulates that poets have a certain freedom not found anywhere else because they are only limited by their wit. This freedom allows poetry to “actively intervene in the world and transform it for the better” (Greenblatt 1044). Poetry is further justified by its rich history and the special status given to poets by ancient Romans and Greeks. Finally, Sidney argues that poetry’s importance lies in its ability to affect readers and bring about true change.  Writing as a tool for societal change is exemplified in More’s Utopia, which presents an ideal society as one with free education for all, a universal understanding of agriculture, and no shortage of trades.  Sidney’s theories can also be found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which adopts many characteristics of classical epics, like invoking a muse or focusing on love, war, and heroism (and thus supporting itself with references to a rich classical past, like Sidney proposed), but which also critiques society, specifically the crown’s unchecked authority through the church.  Finally, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene presents a series of complex moral dilemmas, and “readers are constantly in danger of mistaking hypocritical evil for good, or cunningly disguised foulness for true beauty” (Greenblatt 776).  Spenser plays with the freedom Sidney speaks of, for his poem fulfills a variety of roles—a national celebration, a chivalric romance, a heroic full of adventures and battles, and a critique of heroism and human sin.

C. Discuss the ways in which rediscovery of the classics and a new focus on individual experience lead to greater variety in genres, writing styles, and formats for literature in the Renaissance and 17th century.  Include several examples of specific works in your discussion.
The Renaissance also brought about Humanism, an assertion of the human figure as the center and an emphasis on individual experience.  Humanists also revered ancient texts, often reading them in their original language and appraising them with logic and reason.  An example of the effects of humanism on literature can be found in the Sonneteers, who used Petrarch’s techniques and content as a basis for poetic form innovations.  Ultimately, the Renaissance writer’s job was to show an understanding of and appreciation for the classics while still creating distances.  In Tottel’s Miscellany, we can see the effects of an international influence, as well as poets experimenting with new forms, like Wyatt and Surrey’s introduction of blank verse into Petrarchan form. Richard Barnfield also creates space in Cynthia when “redirecting the Petrarchan conventions of praise . . . to a man” (Greenblatt 1002).  Barnfield uses the line, “A lovely creature, brighter than day” to refer to Ganymede. Another example is Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, a mythological poem about two-ill fated lovers but one that gains distance from the classics because of Marlowe’s original treatment of the classical tale.  Though based on a classic story previously told by Ovid, this Hero and Leander are unique and full of paradoxes. In Marlowe’s account, Hero is a chastity-bound nun despite her service to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and “Leander is both a sharp, sophisticated seducer and a sexual innocent” (Greenblatt 1107). John Donne provides another example of new literary forms and an emphasis on individual experience is the metaphysical poets, with works like “Song,” “The Sun Rising,” and “The Indifferent.” In “The Cannonization,” Donne shows mastery of the metaphysical conceit, with his equating lovers and saints, two contrasting things that eventually merge into a single idea through his extended metaphor. Contrasting with the petrarchist school of poets were the anti-petrarchists, influenced by Wyatt, Surrey, and Gascoigne or cavalier poets. Both schools, though, resulted in the rise of sonnets, songs, and popular music, like in madrigals, airs, or ballads.

D.  Discuss types of prose from the 17C and the purposes of 17C writing that they illustrate, noting how these purposes reflect the political, religious, and scientific cross-currents of the period.
In the wake of the 16th century English Renaissance, the 17th Century produced new types of prose fulfilling new purposes. New scientific discoveries prompted scientists to compose descriptions of their discoveries, which often challenged previous understanding. One example of this is Galileo, whose astronomical discoveries built on Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe and challenged classical Ptolemaic theories. Galileo also points to religious, not just scientific, cross-currents, as he wrote to explain problematic biblical passages through the lens of a helio-centric universe.  Galileo’s theories were based on personal discoveries, so he, and other 17th Century scientific writers, valued personal experience much more than secondhand reading or learning from another source. Another example of the types of prose produced in the 17th Century can be found in Francis Bacon, whose The New Atlantis “proposes collaborative research institutes . . . adopt[ing] the voice of accumulated public wisdom” (Greenblatt 1661). Bacon shows the culture’s interest in scientific discovery and research, as well as an economic base that allowed for increased access to education.  Bacon and other scientists also saw science and discovery as progressive, a way to better humanity.                  Journalism also flourished in the 17th Century, becoming hugely popular after censorship fell with the crown in the 1640s.  An explosion of printed news followed, giving “a broad spectrum of readers access to information about current events” (Greenblatt 1835). This type of “overtly political, often ambitiously literary writing” set the stage for Restoration Era authors like Dryden, Swift, and Pope (1834). The combination of new discoveries, both scientifically and in form, and the increased access to news reporting perfectly preceded the Early English Novel because of the increased audience and writers beginning to describe and analyze the workings of everyday life.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.

Comparison of Milton and More

Utopia Everlasting and Paradise Lost: Nature, Work, and Intellect

Plush gardens, rich vegetation, succulent fruits–for the unaware Christian, John Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost (1667) shapes the biblical understanding of paradise.  To the more learned individual, however, Milton’s description is highly politicized, the components of his Eden significant, and upon noticing the weighted nature of Eden, the reader begins to wonder what components were prioritized in previous accounts of an earthly paradise.  Thomas More composed Utopia in 1516, and a parallel analysis of Paradise Lost and Utopia, specifically Book II, reveals similar elements that are used to communicate different ideologies. I will focus my comparison on three aspects: 1) the physical landscape; 2) the role of work; 3) the role of intellect and reason. Interestingly, though written 100 years apart, the two accounts have a similar emphasis on nature, work, and intellect, but one that speaks uniquely to its audience.  

            Both More and Milton create for their paradises a beautiful and compelling landscape.  More’s Utopia takes the form of a crescent-shaped island, complete with a broad bay that “is never rough, but quite and smooth instead” (Greenblatt 598). The island houses fifty-four cities, “all spacious and magnificent, identical in language, customs, institutions and laws,” and “every city has enough ground assigned to it so that at least twelve miles of farm land are available in every direction, though where the cities are farther apart, they have much more land” (599).  So while Utopia is highly populated, More still emphasizes the empty space and excess land; much like a pastoral, the peaceful, rural scene is idealized.  Similarly, Milton’s descriptions of Eden resemble the pastoral. Like Utopia, Eden is spacious, “stretch[ing] her line/From Auran eastward to the royal tow’rs/Of great Seleucia” (Greenblatt 2007). Furthermore, whereas More uses a serene sea to create a sense of peace, Milton uses vegetation, “trees of noblest kind . . . blooming ambrosial fruit/Of vegetable gold,” fed by a “fresh fountain,” “sapphire fount,” “orient pearl and sands of gold,” and resulting in “nature bounteous/Poured forth profuse on hill and dale and plain” (Greenblatt 2007, 2008).  In both Eden and Utopia, the landscape is not only beautiful, but also peaceful, and in these descriptions of peace there is no mention of humanity, just nature; paradise is peaceful, therefore, because it is removed from human tampering and ensuing chaos.

The accounts differ, however, in how far removed chaos is or is not. For More, Utopia is surrounded by harbors and coasts that are “rugged by nature,” resulting in an island “so well fortified that a few defenders could beat off the attack of a strong force” (Greenblatt 599).  Utopia, then, is suspended in this state of peace, harbored from any sort of attack.  This differs sharply from Eden, with its “close and precarious proximity of good and evil” (Loewenstein 85).  Whereas Utopia is protected from evil, Satan’s serpentine entrance into the garden shows that good and evil can, at least temporarily, exist simultaneously in Milton’s paradise. The significance is not in their co-existence but rather in the fragility of Eden’s peace. David Loewenstein says it best in his critique of Paradise Lost when he writes, “Despite the garden’s natural protections, . . . the furtive and voyeuristic Satan easily gets into it: he is compared to a wolf invading God’s sheepfold . . . reminding us how vulnerable and fragile this delightful place or locus amoenus is as we begin to share his view of its beauty and abundant pleasures” (85).  Nature completes Utopia’s protection from invasion, but for Milton, even nature cannot keep evil from entering Paradise. In Utopia, peace is guaranteed; in Eden, The Fall is inevitable.

The pastoral elements to both Utopia and Paradise Lost provide inviting settings, but settings that do not keep characters idle; instead, both works communicate activity as an important part of paradise.  In More’s society, “agriculture is the one occupation at which everyone works, men and women alike, with no exception.” Furthermore, “every person (and this includes women as well as men) learns a second trade, beside agriculture” (Greenblatt 603). Clearly, living in a utopia brings with it the requirement of work.  A similar standard exists in Eden, where Adam and Eve “also need to work, beginning early in the day, pruning the growing plants and tending the flowers, herbs, and fruits” (Loewenstein 84).  While both More and Milton emphasize the importance and necessity of work, there seems to be a distinct difference in the role of this emphasis. Milton communicates that for Adam and Eve it is a task, an assignment, so in Paradise Lost, working the garden shows Adam and Eve’s dominion over nature, but in Utopia work seems to fulfill an innate need of the people; according to Milton, work is for the garden, but according to More, work is for the people, “so that no one sits around in idleness” (Greenblatt 603). Milton and More, then, both communicate the importance of work, but this emphasis plays very different roles.

In both works, an aversion to idleness translates to a pursuit of education. More’s Utopians are “tireless . . . in intellectual pursuits,” studying “music, dialectic, arithmetic, and geometry,” and spending “their leisure time in reading” (614, 621).  Furthermore, all Utopians have free access to education, “a remarkable idea given that at the time of Utopia’s publication the vast majority of the population in England could neither read nor write” (Halpin 304).  For More, education is of utmost importance, and, according to David Halpin, the context surrounding More “indicates clearly that More was very committed to a particular version of the education process” (304).  In other words, surrounded by the abundance of Renaissance ideas, More’s educational ideal differed from previous ways of teaching. This perhaps explains why his Utopians “had never so much as heard about a single one of those philosophers whose names are so celebrated in our part of the world,” nor had they “discovered even of one those elaborate rules . . . or inventions of our modern logicians” (Greenblatt 614).  More promotes education but in an entirely different way, with a polite nod to the classics while also postulating that other areas of study, especially when done through individual experience, are as important as philosophy and logic.

Milton, on the contrary, elevates reason as the ideal, not by putting Adam and Eve through rigorous bouts of schooling but, rather, by creating a dichotomy of reason and desire.  Where desire triumphs, reason has failed, and for “those who restrain Desire . . . Reason usurps its place and governs” (Blake, qtd. in Saurat 175).  Or, in other words, The Fall occurs when reason is replaced by desire.  As the ideal, reason symbolizes Christ, and according to David Saurat in “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry,” “We have seen that Chris is, in truth, Reason triumphing over Desire . . . Thus Christ is ‘Reason,’ but not through allegory: he is truly the reasonable part of each believer, each man being part of God” (175, 6).  In Paradise Lost, reason is from God, of God, and accordingly combats desire, making it the ideal.  Milton is not focused on widespread education, like More, but he makes logic and reason top priorities by giving them such significance in the spiritual realm. Furthermore, by placing logic within humanity, Milton also elevates individual experience.

Paradise Lost and Utopia are very dissimilar works, providing bookends for the 16th and 17th century in British literature. Despite their differences, the presentation of paradise is rife with similarities, and it is interesting to see how the two works mirror each other in that they both elevate nature, work, and education. In their including these three elements as fundamental parts of paradise, More and Milton communicate cultural ideals, like the importance of the pastoral, the aversion to idleness, and the affluence of Renaissance learning and ideas. These similarities, though, are only surface deep, for behind the initial elevation the works are unique in the ultimate message they are communicating. For More, education for all is beneficial for society; for Milton, reason is divine. For More, work is healthy and helpful; for Milton, it is a human responsibility. For More, once gained, utopia is everlasting; for Milton, paradise is fragile and ultimately lost.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.

Halpin, David. “Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More.” British Journal of Education Studies 49.3 (2001): 299-315. JSTOR. Web. 16 July 2013.

Loewenstein, David. Milton: Paradise Lost. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Saurat, David. “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry in Milton’s Work.” Milton Criticism: Selections from Four Centuries. Ed. James Thorpe. New York: Collier Books, 1950. 169-77. Print.


Robinson Crusoe: A Film Very Dissimilar from the Novel

Unbeknownst to me prior to viewing, the 1997 rendition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe differs greatly from the novel. Because of its availability on Netflix, I watched that version and wondered how an author from 18th century England could write such a compelling example of positive race relations. The movie depicted Robinson eventually coming to view Friday and Friday’s people as equals, and as optimistic as that is, I was skeptical that an author in Defoe’s time could write so progressively.

After reading chapters from Defoe’s novel in order to accurately compare it to the film, it is encouraging that Defoe wrote true companionship between Friday and “Master.” It was probably astonishing for Defoe’s audience to read of this relationship between Robinson and a savage like Friday. But with our 20th century critical lenses, we can see that, even if Defoe was progressive for his time, his portrayal of Friday was hardly espousing equality. For he writes Friday as a cannibal and in desperate need of a European education, even titling one of his chapters “Friday’s Education,” and it is always clear that Robinson is the benefactor and Friday the fortunate recipient of any scraps, be they food, intellect, or religion, that Robinson throws at him.

While one can see why a modern film maker would adapt the storyline to show a more equal relationship between Friday and Crusoe, making the film appealing to a diverse audience, the reasoning behind some of the other changes is a little less clear. The film, directed by Rod Hardy and starring Pierce Brosnan, has a very different beginning and ending than the novel, for Defoe writes Robinson escaping a monotonous family life by seeking adventures abroad, while Hardy portrays Robinson fleeing the consequences of a victorious duel with a friend, the husband of Crusoe’s lover, whose brothers chase Robinson in pursuit of revenge. Furthermore, the novel ends with Friday accompanying Robinson on his return to England (completing Defoe’s mission of civilizing Friday), but in the film Friday is killed by Englishmen who come to rescue Robinson. Robinson is clearly distressed, contrasted sharply by his brutal comrades who seem quite proud of their victory. Again this is an example of filmmakers adapting the plot to show Robinson’s transformation, appropriately meeting the expectations of a modern audience but maybe doing an injustice to the novel and failing to accurately inform viewers of Defoe’s context.

The film didn’t receive very high ratings, so perhaps viewers did not respond as positively as hoped to the changes in the adaptation. The unfavorable reception could also be a result of the film’s unrealistic quality. The point of Defoe’s book, which was originally circulated as a true story written by a real Robinson Crusoe, was to make Crusoe’s adventures believable. While today’s audience would obviously understand that the story is fictional, the film conveyed an additional layer of unbelievability, like when Robinson returns to England after a supposed thirty-five year span and both he and the lovely Mary look as if they haven’t aged.

All in all, the film was not well done. Adaptations to the plot took away from the original novel, and directors failed to account for some highly unlikely circumstances.