The ideological functions of Renaissance funeral elegy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics



Subject Categories

Literature in English, British Isles


This study situates the genre of Renaissance funeral elegy within the ideological discourses of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and, briefly, within the critical discourses of twentieth century scholarship. On one level, the study is an archaeological project, recovering a forgotten body of uncanonized "popular culture," or "broadside" elegies in order to enable a more complete understanding of the ways Renaissance funeral poems were read in their own historical moment. On another level, the study contests traditional "aestheticized" and history-of-ideas-oriented readings (which treat literature as an inherently apolitical and transcendent category) asserting the importance of the genre's ideological function as a site of contestation over social values. I chart the position of the genre in various discursive contexts (funeral practices, social subjectivity, and the literary sub-genres of popular culture) in order to reveal the conflictual ruptures it produced within the dominant (aristocratic) ideology.

Based on primary research of sixteenth century funeral records in British archives, I place the broadside elegy in its relationship to elaborate funeral pageantry and other funeral practices in the period. Using poststructural models of social formation and subjectivity, I reconstruct the social position from which these poems were written. There was, in fact, a group of middle-class writers who promoted themselves as "professional elegists"--always ready with a poem upon the death of an important aristocrat. The specifically marginal subject position which these writers occupied in the Elizabethan social formation enabled them to produce a critique of the dominant aristocratic ideology even within a genre designed to flatter particular aristocrats. I map out the larger generic context within which funeral poems were written and read, situating the adulatory, published "broadside" funeral elegy in relation to the more personal manuscript elegies of the aristocratic elite and in relation to the frequently satirical broadside ballads on government ministers, controversial clergymen, notorious criminals, and other notable subjects. The study ends with an examination of John Donne's First Anniversary in the complex socio-historic context that I have developed in the preceding chapters.


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