Literature Program

MA Comps: Models of Best Practices

Descriptions of Courses and Papers

Students should take note of the following two descriptions of one student’s courses and seminar papers:

EN 662: Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages

Medieval literature exclusive of Chaucer.

Instructor: Alexandra Cook

Paper: “Performing Nationhood and Auctoritas: The Form and Function of the Brutus Frame in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

When Gawain’s fame and reputation as a chivalrous knight are questioned and tested, the fame and reputation of Arthur’s court— and possibly Arthur himself—are also put into some doubt. Since Arthur signifies “the high-water mark of British civilization,” according to Thorlac Turville-Petre (83), it follows that any doubt concerning Arthur’s authority or chivalrousness—whether directed at Arthur or his knights—casts a shadow over the English people and nation as a whole. The Gawain-poet, by anchoring his poem to Arthur and anchoring Arthur to the matter of Troy, establishes this line of questioning at the same time as he performs its answer. Given these questions of identity—both Gawain’s and England’s— and the intricate circularity of the poem, the poem’s opening and closing references to the founding of Britain by Brutus are more than simply a frame. They set the narrator up as a member of two distinct societies: he is English, and he is an author who wields authority or auctoritas.

EN 699: Making Love: Seventeenth-Century Lyric Poetry

Major authors included Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Rochester, Milton, and many others.

Instructor: Richard Rambuss (visiting from Emory)

Paper: “If I must example bee’: Donne’s Petrarchan Heart as Speculum Amicitiae.”

This paper examines friendship’s presence in the Songs and Sonnets through a particular set of poems—“The Broken Heart,” “The Legacie,” and “The Blossome”—and argues that Donne’s poems serve as pedagogical texts in two key ways: first, the texts concern themselves with amorous love and its pitfalls, and teach their audiences how to avoid these fates; second, friendship texts complicate the Petrarchan love conceits Donne employs, thereby enabling these poems to instruct their readers on the subject of proper friendship as a sort of speculum amicitiae.


Obviously, descriptions of this sort, identified by year and semester, should be provided for each course, either completed or in-process. Such fulsome descriptions tend to lead to detailed and sophisticated questions like the following:

Trace the evolution of the seventeenth-century love lyric. What sorts of erotic behavior does it value and/or discard as it moves from its Petrarchan roots? What major influences bring about these changes? Does Petrarchan love lyric continue to flourish after the seventeenth century, or does it reach its terminus?

Theodore Silverstein has argued that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s opening and closing references to the founding of Britain by Brutus “belong in no ordinary Gawain story” (190). What is the function of the Brutus frame in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

These questions, which either overtly or implicitly acknowledge the critical conversations of which they are a part, exemplify the kind of synthetic approach and professional acumen that the department wants to foster in its graduate students. Moreover, the time and attention that it takes to craft these kinds of questions should lead to increased confidence and distinctive lucidity when it comes time to take the exam itself.

Examination Response

The first of the above sample questions led its author to the following examination response, which, in the immediate and unanimous judgment of the evaluating Committee, merited Distinction for its lucidity, its detailed attention to primary texts, its sophistication in engaging with issues of critical importance to the field, and its demonstration of field-specific knowledge:

In their seminal works on early modern friendship, Jeffrey Masten and Laurie Shannon seek to explain and explore the roles of primary friendship texts—including Cicero’s De amicitia and Montaigne’s “De l’Amitie”—secondary literary texts. Shannon mentions Cicero most often as she considers texts including Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Miriam, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, and the Henriad, texts in which friendship is a major focus of the plot. In Textual Intercourse, Masten refers most often to John Florio’s English translation of Montaigne’s Essais, particularly “Of Friendship,” in his study of early modern dramatic texts and collaboration between playwrights. His main texts are The Two Noble Kinsmen and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Though both of these plays are concerned with romance and Petrarchan, heterosocial institutions such as marriage, and the friendships between the title characters—the Kinsmen and the Gentlemen—would therefore seem at odds with heteroerotic and heterosocial relationships which come to characterize these texts, Masten argues that the homosocial works to underpin, rather than to undermine, the Petrarchan love present in these texts. The letters passed between Valentine and Protheus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona share, according to Masten, a “similar idiom” to those passages in the play which deal most clearly with Petrarchan love and take on a poem-like quality. As support for his assertions, Masten reminds readers that Petrarchan verse—what we are most likely to term “love-poetry”—circulated largely “between men and register[ed] male ‘suits,’” including economic, social, and other concerns (43-45). While Masten does not consider poems as primary texts in his study, Shannon does. Among the poems she examines are two by John Donne: “Elegie to the Lady Bedford” and “Sappho to Phailenas.” She also takes pains to display the overarching affects friendship texts, and especially Cicero’s De amicitia, had on everyday life in early modern England. These texts, she argues, were pedagogical in many ways, and permeated early modern thought so much so that authors, perhaps even if they did not purpose to do so, would likely include the specific idiom of “Renaissance friendship” in their texts.

The work Shannon and Masten accomplish in their respective texts—especially the attention they call to friendship as it was practiced in the early modern period—is important to our understanding of and approaches to early modern texts. However, Masten and Shannon both examine texts in which friendship plays an obvious part, reevaluating and queering the role of friendship in those texts and the scholarship which surrounds them. Taking a cue from Masten’s evidentiary use of Petrarchan verse, this essay will otherwise deviate from Masten’s and Shannon’s approaches to explore the ways in which John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets serve, as Masten says, to “register” and further “male suits.” Four poems in particular—“The Broken Heart,” “The Message,” “The Legacie,” and “The Blossome”—illustrate friendship’s idiom and male suits in Donne’s poetry, and I argue that they serve as pedagogical, courtly texts in two ways: first, the speakers of these poems act as teachers, instructing men in the matters of love; second, through their references to popular friendship texts of the period, these texts function as a sort of speculum amicitiae, or mirror of friendship, which would instruct men how best to approach relationships of a homosocial nature.

The Songs and Sonnets have not been considered with regard to the pedagogical texts which so dominated literary culture in the early seventeenth century, and they have certainly not been evaluated with friendship and friendship texts in mind. The simplest reason for such a lack in scholarship—and the main counterargument that could be proffered against my own—is the popular and scholarly belief that these poems are love-poetry, written to ladies. Dame Helen Gardner begins her highly influential edition of The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets with a fourteen-page introduction to “The Love-Poetry” of John Donne. The terms love and Petrarchan continue to surround Donne’s poetry in many of the scholarly articles printed each year, and these terms, to our modern ears, often preclude friendship. The quartet of poems under consideration here is largely neglected in scholarship. Gardner’s introduction groups three of these poems—“The Broken Heart,” “The Blossome,” and “The Legacie”—into one sentence in her introduction, and that sentence characterizes the speaker as full of “tears and moans” for a woman who has betrayed him. A scholarly article focused on the same poems uses them to tie Donne (and therefore English poetry of the seventeenthcentury) to the Petrarchan tradition—and to Petrarch himself—squarely placing these poems within the realm of “love-poetry.” While these poems do, indeed, rest within the Petrarchan tradition, there is more to be seen within them—and through them—than first meets the eye.

The pedagogical quality of Donne’s verse need not be defended, for it makes itself known quite often. “The Extasie,” for instance, turns on the concept of a third-party observer who has the opportunity to change— to become more than what he once was—through the chance he has to witness the Platonic mingling of the speaker’s and his lover’s souls. However, the observer cannot actually witness something so pure, and 6 therefore the lovers must return to their bodies to truly educate the thirdparty. In a more Petrarchan text, the two lovers’ “souls” would be “hearts,” for the terms were slippery during the early modern period. (Thus, “The Extasie” might be the only truly successful exchange of hearts in Donne’s corpus.) Friendship texts and tropes could be tied to this poem; Montaigne’s language concerning the mixing and mingling of friends, for instance, is akin to that Donne uses to describe the interanimation of the lovers’ souls. “The Extasie” is, perhaps, even more entrenched in the tradition of “love-poetry” than those I wish to discuss at length, but the seeds of my argument—exchange as an instrument of Donne’s pedagogy—are rooted here.

Another poem which uses the term “soul,” in a way that is more truly akin to Petrarchan heart exchange, is “Loves Exchange.” Critics have most concerned themselves with the Petrarchan images present in the poem, and with good reason. The poem begins with a typical lover’s complaint: “Love, any devill else but you / would for a given soule give something too” (1-2). However, the speaker does not address a lover, but Love himself. He goes on to compare Love to other gods, who “give a part” to those who worship and adore them correctly. The speaker says that he is, “by being lowly, lower” than those men—courtiers—who receive what they should. The speaker goes on to address the suffering and shame he has felt in his lowly position in the next three stanzas, but in the final stanza, he reassumes the powerful position of accusation in his first lines. He suggests that love has gone about things all wrong. “If I must example bee / To future Rebells,” he says, “Kill and dissect mee,” for “Rack’t carcasses make ill Anatomies.” Torture, the speaker claims, is not a good enough pedagogical example for those who might find themselves in Love’s clutches. Love should, instead, kill him right away, and make of him a more useful “Anatomie.” The speaker is not only a pedagogical instrument for the other courtiers as the stanza ends; he has a pedagogue himself, teaching the teacher.

This physical method of teaching—the speaker’s body as pedagogical device—carries into “The Message.” Donne’s speaker begins the first lines of the first two stanzas of this poem with a simple command: “Send.” During the course of a relationship, the speaker has given his eyes and heart to his lover as tokens of his affection, and he wishes to have them returned. Montaigne, when he warns against heteroerotic relationships in “De l’Amitie,” says that in “love” there are “a thousand strange knots to be undone,” while friendship is a cleaner, clearer relationship. Some of that untangling of knots seems visible in “The Message.” The speaker begins by demanding the return of his eyes, a natural command at a relationship’s end. However, he thinks better of it, for they have likely learned ill and “false passions” from his lover’s own eyes, and are made “fit for no good sight.” She should, therefore keep them. He then asks for his heart, which previously bore no “staine.” He reconsiders again, however, for his heart could have learned from hers

To make jestings

Of protestings

And to crosse both

Word and oath.

She should keep the heart as well, therefore, “for tis none of mine.” As is typical in Donne’s poetry, the speaker reconsiders yet again in the volta which comes with the final stanza. “Yet send me back my heart and eyes,” he says, “that I may learne and see thy lies.” The implication that a woman’s heart is no good, or imperfect, runs throughout friendship texts popular in the early modern period. The speaker should have known, through knowledge of Cicero and Montaigne, not to value heteroerotic relationships above the homosocial. The speaker’s heart and eyes have become auto-pedagogical devices, and the possession of a damaged heart empowers the speaker as a pedagogue himself. The exchange of hearts the speaker initiated should only take place within friendship’s bounds, for women’s hearts are weak, damaged, or missing altogether (especially according to Montaigne.) Through taking part in the imperfect exchange, however, though he himself is no longer fit for “good sight” and might “crosse both / Word and oath” (activities which were certainly unwelcome in the homosocial sphere of the court) he can, through verse, warn others away from his fate.

The exchange of hearts in “The Legacie” takes place semiposthumously. The speaker wishes to leave his heart to his lover upon his death, yet when he goes to look for it in himself, he “can find none.” He “rip[s]” his chest open—signaling the apertum pectus in Cicero (in true friendship, one must “behold and show an open heart”)—but can find no heart. Instead he finds “something like a heart,” with “corners” and “colors,” a heart “intire to none.” The heart belongs to the speaker’s lover: he says, “no man could hold it, for twas thine.” The exchange cannot take place, then, not only because there is no true heart, but because women’s hearts are unworthy for exchange.

Exchange is also impossible in “The Broken Heart,” but not due to a lover. The speaker says he had a heard when he entered the room, but left with none, for Love himself “shattered” his heart “as glasse.” Though this poem seems quite Petrarchan in nature—the idea of a broken heart, after all, is most associated with “love-poetry”—the poem is not clearly addressed to the speaker’s lover until stanza three. Who, then, is the intended audience of the first two stanzas? The images of the first two stanzas are especially martial and, interestingly, plural. When the speaker disparages Love, he says that Love “destroys whole ranks,” “swallows us whole” and “never chawes.” “He is the tyran Pike,” says the speaker, “our hearts the Frye.” These plural images and pronouns are directed toward those most likely to read “The Broken Heart” in manuscript form: courtiers. This becomes clear in the poem’s last lines when, though the speaker speaks to his lover, he calls attention to the fact that the “ragges” of his heart might “wish” or “adore” but can “love no more.” The speaker, because of his poor choices regarding heteroerotic love, has condemned himself to live outside the homosocial sphere. Additionally, the poem is a coupe de foudre, or a poem concerning love at first sight. The speaker’s haste in falling in love echoes Cicero’s admonition against making friends too quickly.

The final poem under consideration, “The Blossome,” takes the form of a dialogue between the speaker and his heart, and thus it mimics the dialogue of Cicero’s De amicitia. The speaker tells his heart, which he has watched grow with great care, that he and it must depart from their lover on the morrow. The heart refuses, however, and wants to stay with the lover, accusing the speaker of wanting only sexual favors from other “friends,” which the heart obviously figures as feminine. The speaker, though, retorts and says that a woman cannot understand “a naked thinking heart, which makes no show,” for her heart is defective, or perhaps nonexistent. The speaker goes on to imagine that the heart has completely refused, and says, then, that the heart should meet him at London in a few days, where the heart shall find him “fresher and happier” by “being with men”—those who can understand him, and would be “as glad to find” both his “body”—or heart—“as my mind.” Here, most clearly, the figuration of Petrarchan heart exchange aligns with the tropes of friendship in the early modern period, and the connections between Donne’s Petrarchan poems and friendship texts is clear. The speaker has chosen—as he has been admonished to do by Cicero—to put friendship above all things, and he will grow wiser through vera amicitia.