How did the split between the sensibilities affect thoughts about the role or nature of the body in Renaissance literature?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The human body figures as a topic in many literary texts from the English Renaissance. Although it is difficult to generalize about such a broad issue, especially as it appears in so many different texts, it may be useful to comment on a few specific instances.

  • The body was often contrasted with the soul, and the soul was typically considered superior to the body. At the very end of Henry Howard’s tribute to the dead Sir Thomas Wyatt, for example, Howard proclaims that while the earth possesses only Wyatt’s “bones, the heavens possess his ghost [that is, his spirit]” (38). The body inevitably died, but the soul was capable of living forever. As the speaker of sonnet 79 of Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti puts it,

. . . onely that is permanent and free

From frayle corruption, that doth flesh ensew [that is, outlast] (7-8)

  • The body was often considered the source of many impulses and temptations that conflicted with Christian ideals of the period. The male speakers in many Renaissance sonnets, for instance, are driven by their own bodily desires to want to possess merely the attractive, ephemeral bodies of women rather than valuing those women for their truly beautiful souls and characters. Thus, in sonnet 52 of Sir Philip Sidney’sAstrophil and Stella sonnet sequence, Astrophil is foolishly willing to dispense with Stella’s soul in order that he and Cupid may possess her “body” (14). Sidney clearly mocks this choice.
  • The body was mortal and mutable, but the beauty of the body could be preserved in several ways, including marriage and reproduction and also including celebration by a talented poet. Both of these ways of passing on beauty are extolled in sonnet 18 of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
  • Although mere lust for another’s body was condemned, physical love for (and with) another person was approved, as long as that love was true love, rooted in a prior love of God, and as long as that love was sanctioned in holy matrimony. This kind of love seems to be praised, for instance, in John Donne’s poem “The Good Morrow” (among many other works). Love of another’s body was permissible as long as it was the result of prior love of that person’s soul. Thus, in a memorable line from John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” the speaker says that if he and his beloved can maintain their spiritual connection, they will “Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss” if they happen to be physically separated (20). Notice that the speaker does not say that they will not miss each other physically at all; they will simply miss each other “less” in that way than if their connection were merely and completely physical. People whose affections are rooted merely in fleshly attraction

. . . cannot admit

Absence, because it [that is, absence] doth remove

Those things [the flesh] which elemented it [their attraction]

  • The death of another person’s body could produce great grief in the Renaissance, even though people of this period strongly believed that the soul survived the body. Thus, in Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Son,” Jonson realizes intellectually and spiritually that his little boy’s soul still lives, despite the death of the boy’s body, but the latter kind of death nevertheless produces great grief.
  • Ideally, then, in the Renaissance the body and soul were expected to be in harmony, not in conflict, with the soul clearly superior to the body and in control of it.


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