Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2016

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



In Mortal Verse I argue that early modern poets sought a poetic immortality that was paradoxically rooted in the mortal, material body. From the material condition of verse (written or printed on paper made out of recycled clothing) to the conceptual (taken into the mind through eye or ear and stored in the memory) poetry came yoked to the human body for Renaissance writers and readers. Attention to this overlooked early modern sense of embodied memory is crucial to understanding poetic commemoration, which both treats poems as bodies—what John Donne calls his "carcass verses"—and bodies as commemorative edifices. In that sense, my dissertation concerns itself with the place of poetry in both private memory and public commemoration, understanding both through the intimacy and the community of bodily life. Writers such as Philip Sidney argue for a crucial interdependence between bodily senses, poetry, and memory in their poetic defenses. I maintain that Sidney's physicalized terms, such as poetic pictures that "strike" and "pierce" the mind, are more than a rhetorical convenience; they reveal the Renaissance embodiment of verse in the mind. I establish the preeminence of embodied memory and verse in Donne's visceral commemorations, as well as in Spenser, Shakespeare and others' poetic blazons of the late 16th century—where the appropriating gestures of desire are subtly pitted against physicalized loss, even as subjects are preserved in the memorial detail. I further examine both physiological and poetic treatments of tears across seventeenth-century amatory, funerary, and devotional writing, where weeping is an act that simultaneously establishes and effaces embodied memory. For these early modern writers, poetry's lasting impact on impermanent bodies makes it an uneasy alternative to divine immortality. My argument culminates in a reading of The Temple as deliberately built on the foundations of contemporary amatory and funerary verse which relies on embodiment: Herbert's insistence on mortal verse allows him to place his verse in a mutable body that may be over-written by the divine, thus commemorating his relation to God. The Temple presents a palimpsestic material body, inhabiting a sense of the relation between mortal and immortal creation. The gestures of poetic immortality, founded on the impressions created by the senses in the memory, are, themselves, based on impermanence. That is, if a poet's words are to last, they will do so only through a chain of mortal memories—residing within the confines of embodied memory. Through Donne's poetic experiments, the sonnet traditions of Spenser, Shakespeare and others, the commemorative verse of weeping, and the devotional poetry of Herbert one common element ties the immortality of verse to the physical decay of the mortal and material body. In tracing the production of mortal verse, I write not only a broader cultural history of the body but also revise intellectual histories of the memory in early modern poetry, revealing in the process the way embodied memory affected the form and focus of early modern verse. While scholarship on the art of memory (begun by Francis Yates and continued by Paolo Rossi, Mary Carruthers, and others) attends to the physicalized mind, it has not fully responded to two important related fields: cultural-historical work on the body and literary-historical work on poetic materiality. The two scholarly discourses on memory and bodies on the one hand, and on materiality and poetics on the other, have been running alongside one another without intersecting; yet for early modern poets and intellectuals, I argue, memory, bodies, and poetry were in constant conversation. Building on the scholarship of writers like Michael Schoenfeldt and Gail Paster, who derive a description of early modern interiority and selfhood from early modern accounts of the body's relationship with its environment, I show that the (already) physicalized inward mind is itself a repository and an edifice for commemoration. I demonstrate what literary history can contribute to the cultural history of the body by showing that both early modern poetic apologists and early modern poets specifically linked the physicality of the mind to the effective force of poetry. Through multiple verse genres, and across a broad range of authors, I show that early modern writers saw memory and poetry as mutually constitutive, inflecting both through the body, and affecting the form, concerns, and understanding of their artistic endeavors.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Joseph Loewenstein

Committee Members

Dennis Des Chene, Musa Gurnis, Carl Phillips, Steven Zwicker


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/doi:10.7936/K7TX3CRJ

Available for download on Saturday, August 15, 2116