Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Clare Carroll

Committee Members

Isaias Lemer

Richard McCoy

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature


The present study examines the significance for Ercilla and Spenser of humanism, Neoplatonism, Petrarchism, and cortegiania, competing discourses with distinct identities within the competing ideologies of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Both authors draw on a shared heritage of the translatio studii and, in particular, on imagery arising from epic poetry's underlying tension between epos and eros. Ercilla's use of this material fuels a renovatio of classical epic based on the poet's participation in the events he describes. Spenser's utilization of these motifs constitutes a transformatio impelled by reformed religion, which raises the stakes from the potential for shame or dishonor in the ancient world to the possibility of damnation in the modern, Protestant one.

While the goals of the two poets diverge, key aspects of their texts and contexts invite comparison: both poems are dedicated to sovereigns-as-ideal-readers; both speak from the margins of power, literally and figuratively, and reflect the competing concerns of court and colony, of center and periphery; both texts emerge against a background of colonial projects in which their authors are actors. The exposure to an ostensibly barbaric culture is formative for both poets and their cultures, providing a site for competing visions of national identity that pit class-based economic interests against traditional political and religious power structures.

While drawing extensively on Virgil, Ercilla and Spenser both challenge the authority granted him by humanism, whose recovery of antiquity homogenized the past, suppressing all but authorized versions of multifaceted narrative traditions. The early modern absolutist state presents a more immediate, public authority for these authors. Ercilla celebrates Spanish empire while criticizing excessive violence; Spenser finesses a celebration of Elizabeth with an increasingly embittered critique of Tudor policies. Both poems foreground private authority via the Platonic triad of the concupiscent, irascible, and rational, with the image of the bridle a key emblem of restraint. For Ercilla, these motifs become the conduit for an unexpectedly personal expression of honor. Spenser's focus on the public sphere allows him to establish not so much the supremacy of Christianity over the pagan world, already asserted by Ariosto and Tasso, but the superiority of properly reformed, Protestant epic over its humanist-inspired, Renaissance counterparts.


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