"This subject for heroic song": The dialectic of passivity and violence in Spenser, Milton, Shelley

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Mihoko Suzuki - Committee Chair


Spenser (in the Faerie Queen), Milton (in Comus, Paradise Lost, and Samson Agonistes) and Shelley (in Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci) participate in the ethical debate about the necessity of action on the one hand and the attraction of passivity on the other. As they place their heroes in situations that are not resolvable by force, these writers move toward affirming the passive aspect of heroism. They define a new kind of heroism that criticizes the emphasis by previous poets on glory in battle. Even though the classical epics already include examples of passivity--such as Achilles' withdrawal from battle, and Odysseus' disguise as a beggar after his return to Ithaca--these post-classical writers tend to simplify the pst in order to mark their differences from the classical model of heroism in describing a new Christian hero of reflection rather than action. Exhibiting more skepticism about action than the Renaissance poets, Shelley reveals not only its ineffectiveness, but also its dangers. All three writers, then, come to affirm a more reflective and self-contained model of heroism, a model that anticipates modernism's effacement of the self, as articulated by T. S. Eliot and others.


Literature, English

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