"That glorious sight"
: theological aesthetics in the poetry of Edmund Spenser and John Milton

  • David Jacob Morley

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis explores how the Protestant poets Edmund Spenser and John Milton utilize the beautiful as a theological category, and it sets their concerns as Protestant poets in constructive dialogue with the insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics. In Part I, I demonstrate important similarities between the experiential rhythm of Balthasar’s aesthetics and the typical justifications of poetry in Protestant literary theory of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the interrelationship of theological form, attraction, and response (Chapter 1); I also show how Balthasar’s aesthetics provide an account of the connection between the forms of Christ, the Christian, and Christian art which offers a theological grounding for the conception of the Christian poet in such Protestant poetics (Chapter 2). In light of this theological approach, I explore four poems across the careers of Spenser and Milton. In Part II, I examine the power and function of Una’s beauty in Spenser’s narrative of holiness in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene (Chapter 3), and I argue that the climactic, beautiful figure of Sapience in his An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie should be interpreted Christologically rather than philosophically (Chapter 4). In Part III, I consider the beauty of the Christian form in Milton’s Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, arguing that the Lady’s beauty manifests a paradoxical “strong weakness” central to Milton’s understanding of Christianity (Chapter 5), and I positively reappraise the oft maligned figure of Christ in Paradise Regained in light of Balthasar’s theological retrieval of the concept of Ignatian indifference, while maintaining some fundamental differences between Balthasar and Milton’s doctrines of God such that Milton’s Christ cannot aesthetically manifest the glory of the Father (Chapter 6). The thesis contributes to a revaluation of the history of Protestant theological aesthetics in English literature by illustrating how two of England’s major Protestant poets frequently portray Christian theological realities as beautiful and attractive. It also contributes ecumenically to Balthasar studies by demonstrating how such canonical Protestant poetry can both nuance and be illuminated by Balthasar’s aesthetic insights about the Christian faith.
Date of Award16 Jun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorGeorge Corbett (Supervisor)


  • Milton, John
  • Spenser, Edmund
  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von
  • Theological aesthetics
  • Sidney, Philip
  • Religion in literature
  • Theology in literature
  • English poetry
  • Religious poetry
  • Literary theory
  • Christianity and literature

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 8 December 2026

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