Five Favorites: Early Modern Poems

Some of you might know that I’ve started working on a Master of Arts in English. This semester, in addition to the creative writing workshop I talked about last week, I’m working on another prerequisite before I can dive into the graduate level courses.

I was a little upset about this at first, I won’t lie. The thought of taking three 300 level courses seemed so unnecessary. But already, I have seen the error of my ways. These survey courses are a great way to get me back in a lit state of mind after six (SIX?!) years and have started me on a noble quest I’ve often dreamed about: becoming acquainted with the Western literary canon.

Currently, I’m studying Medieval and Early Modern British literature, and I’ve found that I absolutely adore the early modern poets. Here are, as you might be able to guess from the title, my five favorite poems (or collections thereof).

1. Paradise Lost, John Milton

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When it comes to Milton’s magnum opus, I’ve only read three books out of the twelve, and it took some major mental wrestling and guidance for me to understand even a sliver of what was there, but I still can’t help but love it. The fact that he wrote this piece after he was blind is absolutely astounding. Worrisome theological implications aside, this piece is flawless. Everyone should read at least part of it.

2. The Holy Sonnets, John Donne

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Despite Donne’s insistence on mixing his pet themes of God, the soul, and erotic love in sometimes highly upsetting ways (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God” much?), I really do enjoy his Holy Sonnets. His verse flows well and carries so many layers of meaning. Metaphysical poetry is where it’s at.

3. Astrophil and Stella, Sir Philip Sidney

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Even though this sonnet cycle is not really so much about love as obsession, these poems are definitely worth your time and energy. I think Sidney being such a sly dog is what makes me love these sonnets so much. His sonnets are filled with paradoxes and contradictions. He describes how his writer’s block precludes him from writing a love poem–in a love poem. He declares that he cannot describe his lady’s looks–in a poem describing her looks. He’s such a tricky jerk. I love that.

4. Hero and Leander, Christopher Marlowe

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Scholars have said that had Christopher Marlowe lived longer, his work would have rivaled and perhaps even eclipsed that of Shakespeare’s. Reading Hero and Leander, I understand those claims. Exploring the mythical tragic love story between Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, and Leander, a young man from Abydos, this unfinished mini-epic explores complex themes such as nature, artifice, desire, gender, and sexuality.

5. Sonnets, William Shakespeare

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I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since my father took me to see a production of Macbeth for my eleventh birthday. While the other high schoolers were groaning about having to read his plays, I soaked them in, even when I didn’t always understand them. I never would have imagined his sonnets being about to top his barding skills. I was wrong. After reading only a sampling of his poetry, I finally started to understand the true level of his talent and genius. Warning: if you, like me, are prone to literary-induced tears, don’t read too many of these in one sitting. You will indeed grow weepy.

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