This study explores how English lyric poets between 1590 and 1641, facing the question of whether and how their poems might escape Time’s threat to destroy every material thing, brought together classical tropes of poetic immortality with the Christian expectation of bodily resurrection. The expectation of resurrection became for these poets an idea crucial to confronting one of the central problems of lyric, that of lastingness or immortality. As heirs of the classical tradition of poetic fame, of its adaptation by Petrarch and others, and of the repeated upheavals of the English Reformation, they were acutely conscious of threats to the long-term survival of both physical and textual monuments, and they embraced the classical trope of “devouring Time” as an expression of suspicion toward the capacity of material things to endure as vehicles of memory. I examine lyric poems across genres ranging from love sonnet to funeral elegy by poets including Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Spenser, and Milton.
I contend that these poets’ boasts of the power to grant lasting fame should not be dismissed as merely conventional attempts to impress contemporary readers, whether their works were intended for coterie circulation in unbound manuscript or for monumental print editions. As practices surrounding burial and funeral monuments shifted during England’s Reformation toward expressing the hope of resurrection, these poets looked to the resurrection of the body as a template of how materiality and immortality might reach some point of tangency in their verses. Resurrection would make poetic fame superfluous, but in the mean time, the poem could anticipate resurrection, providing an image or foretaste of eternity. At the same time, the body’s decay represented for these poets their anxieties about the many dangers that threaten the prospect of readership in posterity: misattribution, censorship, destruction, fragmentation, and neglect. Though literary immortality is also a concern of other genres of poetry, including epic, I focus on secular lyrics, because they tend to locate themselves in a particular moment, a moment that often looks forward to the address with which the dead are called forth at the moment of resurrection.