Able Verse: Disability and the Lyric in Early Modern Literature

My dissertation examines the embodied and often ableist language surrounding poetics and lyric poetry that burgeoned in the early modern period as well as the legacy of critical distaste for lyric texts that fall outside of traditional lyric bounds.   This dissertation links disability and the lyric for a few reasons. First, the very language of poetics and poetic criticism links the lyric to the body and to disability. We measure poems in feet, lines of poetry that run to the next without punctuation are enjambed (they straddle, from the french jambe [leg]), the iamb is the thumping of a heart, forms become deformed, lines that don’t scan are defective, sonnets without couplets are curtal (tailless), lines of verse missing an initial syllable are acephalous (headless), and so on.

Disability is a commonplace metaphor (lack of insight becomes blindness, etc.), but it is pervasive in the language we use to talk about complex structures, especially language, poetics, and literature. What we now recognize as lyric emerged in the early modern period, and as English poets and versifiers theorized their ways toward proper English verse, they often spoke in terms of disability and the body. George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie, William Webbe’s A Discourse of English Poetrie, and Gabriel Harvey’s and Edmund Spenser’s Letters on Reformed Versifying are but few of many possible examples.

I came to this project via a dissatisfaction with the transposition of Romantic notions of lyric into the early modern period, and I am still hoping to contribute to a more historically accurate and sensitive notion of the lyric (not simply brief, non-narrative, and indirect revelations of the poet’s own thoughts or vision). Specifically, I believe that insights and methods from the field of disability studies offer ways to think about the strange, often-maligned, and non-Petrarchan lyric that shows up in the long lyric, occasional poems, and in dramatic texts.  I also want to consider how disability is at odds with the concepts of sprezzatura and masculinity as they relate to the lyric.

Introduction: Disabled Poetics and the Poetics of Disability

Chapter One: Disability in Early Modern Poetics

Chapter Two: The Lyric Mirror: Disability and Masculinity in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine

Chapter Three: Lyric and Looking in Titus Andronicus

Chapter Four: “She who had no maime”: Disability in Donnean Occasional and Devotional Lyric

For more information, please contact me.