Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Dr. Mary V. Silcox


The notion of desire in Renaissance English love and religious poetry resonates with references to Canticles, or the Song of Songs, a biblical lyric that celebrates the erotic relationship between a man and a woman who are identified traditionally as Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Canticles also has an extensive tradition of spiritual allegory, in which the man is read as Christ and the woman as a representative of humanity; Sponsus and Sponsa perform a betrothal sequence that echoes the anxiety of the Fall in the separation of the lovers and adumbrates their apocalyptic re-union in the consummation of the wedding feast of Revelation. This allegory of erotic desire between divinity and humanity in Canticles'. rhetoric inscribes human relationships with spiritual pleasures that are analogous to carnal pleasures: the site of the body as one of pleasure renders the anxiety of apocalyptic anticipation as a stage for the progress of the soul- that is, the body is the setting for the scene of apprehension that opens it to the pleasurable engagement of divine entrance. Correspondingly, the soul's present engagement with the incarnated divine figure of Christ heightens the erotic interactions between men and women, providing a way to extend the pleasures of physical engagement both within and beyond the boundaries of the body and the present moment. This thesis emphasizes the erotic pleasures of the body and the eroticized pleasures of the soul as the effects of social and spiritual anxiety. Current literary criticism of the English Renaissance tends to focus on anxiety as a dysfunctional psychological effect of corporeality, but I contend that the conception of the psyche, or soul, in this period is far more versatile than current approaches tend to allow. The introductory chapter discusses the historical context of Canticles' exegesis and the four-level model of scriptural interpretation that was still in use during the Renaissance, though with a significantly revised emphasis on tropology, the application of spiritual readings to everyday conduct. This chapter also presents the main issues of investigation in the thesis: scriptural rhetoric, poetic voice, gender as a crucial metaphor of voice, and the interaction between narrative and lyric genres. The following five chapters consider the operation of Canticles' rhetoric in a variety of secular and religious works, including the sonnet sequences of Spenser, Sidney, and Wroth, the religious poetry of Herbert and Crashaw, and the emblem books of Wither and Quarles.

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