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Paradoxical Desire in the Poetry of Sidney, Spenser, Donne, and Herbert

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posted on 2021-12-09, 06:56 authored by He, Qiwei (Francis)

Inspired by conventional Petrarchism, early modern English poets adopted the concept and rhetoric of paradox in their articulations of desire while revealing significant progression and innovation. Desires expressed by the poet-lovers in the poems of Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, and George Herbert are the culmination of attempts to coordinate incongruent and contrasting extremes. This thesis examines how desire operates as paradox in Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Philip and Mary Sidney’s Psalms, Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion, Donne’s amorous and religious poems, and Herbert’s poems.   Chapter One discusses Astrophil’s desire in Astrophil and Stella as demonstrating the Petrarchan lover enfolded in Neoplatonism. It also explores Donne’s amorous poems, which apply religious vocabularies to communicate sexual love, filling the gap between the distant extremes, establishing a paradoxical unity. In Chapter Two, the thesis compares Spenser’s speakers in Amoretti and Epithalamion and the Sidneys’ Psalmist as Neoplatonic lovers, both of whom search within the physical realms—nature and the body—to express the desire for their divine beloved. In Chapter Three, I compare Donne’s religious poems and selected lyrics from George Herbert’s The Temple. I argue that in Donne’s religious poems, spiritual love is mediated through fleshly desire in a sacramental poetics. The relationship between physical desire and spiritual love is comprehended through sacramental analogy. Comparably, in Herbert’s The Temple, the internal and external components of religious desire reflect the Sacramental theories in which Eucharistic elements communicate their divine referents. The effective way to express love for God, paradoxically, is to establish a spiritual justification for an affirmative embrace of sexuality, making fleshly desire serve as a vehicle of Divine grace.   As Donne asserts in his Paradoxes and Problems, “by Discord things increase”. The poet-lovers in the works this thesis explores constantly yearn to imitate and represent their beloved by means of “Discord” and the performance of paradoxical unity. Accordingly, paradoxical desire becomes the inevitable consequence of the poet-lover as a desiring subject who approaches a supposedly insuperable obstacle when he correlates with the beloved obj


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Ross, Sarah