Foundations of British Literature


In this course we will study in detail three central figures in the early formation of British literature, exploring both their individual contributions to literary history in English and the inter-textual relationships between them. Spenser viewed Chaucer as the “well of English undefyled,” while Milton praised the “sage and serious poet” Spenser as a better teacher than the most revered moral philosophers. Some of our central questions will include the following: How does English emerge as a newly self-conscious “literary” language in these authors?  How do their texts respond to other canonical models (Dante and Boccaccio in Chaucer’s case, for example, and the Bible in Milton’s)? How do these works reflect or respond to political/cultural events? How do these authors explore the vexed issues of gender and sexuality in their works?  How does Milton, for example, transform both Biblical and Spenserian material to create his enormously influential characterization of Eve? Our emphasis in this class will be on close textual and contextual analysis, focusing on careful readings of the texts and supplementing these with relevant historical and critical materials. I will supply pdf copies of primary and secondary sources not available in your own editions that I think you will find helpful as we read these works.


  1. I was drawn towards the end of Book 4. Satan takes the form of a toad while he is in heaven. During Medieval times toads were thought to be related to evil. The ztoad’s blood was thought to carry poison. This cultural association of toads is defiantly reflected through Milton’s decision to make Satan disguise himself into a toad. While hidden under a false form, Satan extracts sinful information into Eve. The transfer of poison as sin can be compared. What other possible reasons does Satan take on the form of a toad? If toads really were considered evil wouldn’t seem strange to have a toad in heaven?

    It is not until an angle taps Satan does his true form become reveled. It is there the angles demand Satan revel his identity because they are unable to identify him. Satan responds, “Know ye not then said SATAN, filld with scorn,
    Know ye not me? ye knew me once no mate For you, there sitting where ye durst not soare; Not to know mee argues your selves unknown, The lowest of your throng”(827-830). Satan is personally offended that the angles are unable to recognize him. Milton uses this scene to highlight the engulfing affect of pride on one’s identity. Rather than concern for his own wellbeing or fear of punishment, Satan is more concerned with his pride. I found it important to note that Satan’s pride causes him to blame others, such as reasoning that the angles are of such a low rank for the reason they are unable to recognize him. Satan seems to be more childish in this scene. Is there any possible chance Satan is related to immaturity?

  2. In this reading, I was most struck by the characterization of Una. She is supposed to symbolize Truth and the church (the protestant church), and yet she a very feeble character. It’s true that women at that time were ideally weak, but that just makes it more interesting that Spenser chose to make truth and religion feminine. Una cannot do anything for herself, and her only power is in inspiring men to help her. But still, since she only has reign over the goodness in men, she is completely powerless in the face of evil. Also, she cannot protect Redcrosse, all she can do is find another knight to slay the giant. Spenser underlines how all power and protection come from God, and the only thing truth and religion can do is guide the actions of men, if they allow themselves to be guided. This reflects Spenser’s anti-catholic stance, as the Catholic church was powerful in itself, and would certainly display more agency than Una.

  3. The comparison between King Arthur and Redcrosse, as the two protagonist nights in this work, strikes me. We know that Redcrosse is again and again distracted from his goal and succumbs to error, and only when King Arthur comes along is Redcrosse able to escape captivity. If we recall Canto 1 and the knight’s initial description, we remember that Redcrosse looked the part of the knight but there were signals that he wasn’t yet prepared to carry out his duty. Redcrosse is aware of his own importance to tale. On the contrary, King Arthur (who is not yet a king), doesn’t know much about his lineage. His tutor tells him that he is destined to be king, but beyond that Arthur knows nothing about his background. In a sense, this speaks to the idea that knowledge can actually lead to bad decisions and immoral behavior, which seems counter intuitive, but to put it simply, ignorance is bliss. Like a child, Arthur is driven by an innate sense of right and wrong. For Redcrosse, things go bad when he thinks too much about what is right and what is wrong.

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