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Posthumous Love

Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England

For Dante and Petrarch, posthumous love was a powerful conviction. Like many of their contemporaries, both poets envisioned their encounters with their beloved in heaven—Dante with Beatrice, Petrarch with Laura. But as Ramie Targoff reveals in this elegant study, English love poetry of the Renaissance brought a startling reversal of this tradition: human love became definitively mortal. Exploring the boundaries that Renaissance English poets drew between earthly and heavenly existence, Targoff seeks to understand this shift and its consequences for English poetry.
Targoff shows that medieval notions of the somewhat flexible boundaries between love in this world and in the next were hardened by Protestant reformers, who envisioned a total break between the two. Tracing the narrative of this rupture, she focuses on central episodes in poetic history in which poets developed rich and compelling compensations for the lack of posthumous love—from Thomas Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch’s love sonnets and the Elizabethan sonnet series of Shakespeare and Spencer to the carpe diem poems of the seventeenth century. Targoff’s centerpiece is Romeo and Juliet, where she considers how Shakespeare’s reworking of the Italian story stripped away any expectation that the doomed teenagers would reunite in heaven. Casting new light on these familiar works of poetry and drama, this book ultimately demonstrates that the negation of posthumous love brought forth a new mode of poetics that derived its emotional and aesthetic power from its insistence upon love’s mortal limits.

224 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“Engaging. . . . Targoff knows the virtues of reckoning with the unknowns and their place in the lyric tradition. . . . Targoff’s argument moves nimbly between ideology, analysis of reception and solid readings of individual poems. . . . Elegant.”

Times Literary Supplement

“Startling, bracing and moving. . . . Posthumous Love is an often moving and tender book that treads a delicate balance between sentiment and deft literary analysis. . . . Makes love poetry written in times of traumatic change, under the threat of separation and death, seem uncanny and unsettling, which is surely right.”

Irish Times

“Excellent. . . . Posthumous Love taught me a great deal about a body of work I thought I knew well.”

Roland Greene | Studies in English Literature 1500–1900

“Enlivened by original readings of, among others, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Marvell, Posthumous Love opens up new ways of thinking about early modern views of mortality and the complex ways that these impact literary conventions and representations of eros. . . . Targoff’s sensitive and stimulating close readings and her astute engagement with wider philosophical and theological questions, make this not only a beautifully written and argued book, but a convincing one as well.”

Renaissance Quarterly

“[A] substantial contribution to our understanding of English Renaissance love poetry . . . [Targoff] finds in this cumulative body of verse a serenity, vitality, and buoyancy that go a long way toward explaining its appeal to modern readers.”

Modern Philology

“By considering how Renaissance couples and love poets actually thought about eros and the afterlife, Targoff contributes to a long-standing debate about the interplay between the earthly and the heavenly in Renaissance England. She presents a compelling case for a gradual but unmistakable movement toward the earthly, the particular, and the human.”

Sixteenth Century Journal

Posthumous Love sets out a compelling case about a large and important point about English Renaissance love literature—one that perhaps should have been obvious for a long time but has never been brought into such sharp focus. The material may be familiar, but Ramie Targoff’s treatment is genuinely fresh, and her well-researched book traces a clear narrative arc from Petrarch to the carpe diem poems of the seventeenth century, with nuanced assertions about the sonneteers of the 1590s, the poetry of Donne, and Shakespeare in between.”

Gordon Braden, University of Virginia

“Targoff’s poignant theme is early modern love in time. In this radiant book, consciousness of love in time drives not only the choice of material but also its presentation: Targoff wastes not a second of the reader’s own time as her luminous prose presents moving material in crisply packaged, perfectly targeted scholarship. Posthumous Love’s insight is striking; its mode is a model.”

James Simpson, Harvard University

“Targoff’s brilliance as a literary critic is to ask questions of Renaissance English poetry that seem fundamental and inescapable once she’s raised them. Here, the question is why English poets ignored the precedents in Dante and Petrarch for portraying a love that lasts beyond death and chose instead to insist on love’s mortal limits. Targoff’s answers, in Posthumous Love, yield astonishingly fresh new readings of Shakespeare, Wyatt, Marvell, and Donne.”

Jeffrey Knapp, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents

Introduction Burying Love

1 Love after Death in the Protestant Church
2 Banishing Death: Wyatt’s Petrarchan Poems
3 Dead Ends: The Elizabethan Sonnet
4 The Capulet Tomb
5 The Afterlife of Renaissance Sonnets
6 Carpe Diem

Conclusion Limit Cases: Henry King and John Milton

Epilogue “An Arundel Tomb”



Phi Beta Kappa: Christian Gauss Award

Modern Language Association of America: James Russell Lowell Prize
Honorable Mention

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