Poetry, English

views updated

Poetry, English

Until Henry VIII came to power in 1509, most of England's poetry resembled medieval* literature. As literature from other parts of Europe filtered into England, English poets began to experiment with European influences. The result was an explosion of new forms, styles, and voices in English poetry. English poetry had close ties with both culture and politics during the Renaissance. Three English monarchs—Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James I—were also poets.


The first stirrings of humanism* in England appeared in the work of English poets who began composing verses in Latin. Latin poetry was most popular between 1540 and 1640. Universities taught their students to compose Latin poetry as a way to improve their skill in the language. In the 1580s, both Cambridge and Oxford Universities began to print the Latin verses of their graduates.

Most of the poets who wrote in Latin were university students or graduates, although a small number of privately educated women also published volumes of Latin poetry. Some writers composed Latin verse for their own enjoyment, while others hoped to attract a wealthy patron*. However, only a handful of writers, including Sir Thomas More (ca. 1478–1535), earned lasting or widespread fame because of their Latin writings. More also wrote some poems in English, but like many humanists of the time, he believed that Latin was the proper language for serious literature.

The Latin poetry of the English Renaissance reflects a wide variety of influences. It includes elements of mythology, history, biblical stories, saints' lives, obituaries, and politics. Latin poems celebrated great national events and introduced books of all types. Many poems used "artificial," or cleverly crafted, forms that involved elaborate language patterns, riddles, and wordplay.


Throughout most of the 1500s, English poets mixed forms, styles, and themes from the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For poets, it was a time of experimentation.

English Poetry Before Elizabeth I. When Henry VIII took the throne, humanists and scholars such as Sir Thomas More saw an opportunity for the advancement of poetry. During Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, poets began to import, translate, and adapt new poetic forms from across Europe, including the sonnets* of the Italian poet Petrarch.

John Skelton (ca. 1460–1529) was one of the most inventive poets of the early Renaissance. Some of his writing was political—he wrote two dangerously pointed attacks on one of the king's powerful advisers, yet he also wrote in praise of an English victory in battle. Skelton also defended vernacular* poetry against critics who considered it trivial. He experimented with poetic forms, creating a form of rhymed English verse that drew on the traditions of medieval Latin poetry. His poems show a keen ear for sound and a love of realism.

The most important source of the English Renaissance style, however, lay in the work of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542). Wyatt translated many of Petrarch's sonnets into English using iambic pentameter*, which became a very popular meter for English verse. Some of Wyatt's lyrics illustrate the close relationship between the poetry and the politics of his time. This relationship was also obvious in Wyatt's life. In 1541, after being jailed for treason, he used his skill with rhetoric* to win his freedom.

Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (1517–1547) perfected the style Wyatt had created. A skillful translator, he established what became the standard English sonnet form. He divided sonnets into three groups of four lines, or quatrains, and a couplet*. This form allowed for seven different rhymes rather than the repeated rhymes of Italian sonnets. Surrey also pioneered the use of English blank verse*.

In the mid-1500s some poets left England for religious reasons. Nonetheless, a number of printed collections of poems appeared during this time, including the popular Songes and Sonnettes (1557) by Richard Tottel. One of the most popular forms for poetry during this period was iambic septameter, which contained seven strong syllables and seven weak syllables per line. Many poets saw this meter as resembling the long lines of classical* poetry. However, these long lines sounded to many ears like pairs of shorter lines, with eight syllables followed by six. This "eight and six" form, also known as common meter, was used in a popular translation of the Psalms, which helped make Scripture in English easier to set to music.

Early Elizabethan Trends. Collections of works by several poets remained popular during the early years of Elizabeth's reign, which lasted from 1558 until 1603. At the same time, poets began to publish complete volumes of their own verses—often for profit. Many writers embraced the new ideas of the Renaissance in their work. They wrote poems on Renaissance themes, translated classical poetry, and drew on their experiences abroad.

During the 1560s, Isabella Whitney became the first female poet in England to publish her works. Whitney's poems followed many of the standards of the period, mixing classical and personal references and dealing with common themes. Her work is a sign of the increasing interest in writing among women at this time.

The bold, autobiographical writings of George Gascoigne reflect another trait of writers of this time—ambition. Although critics attacked the first edition of The Posies of George Gascoigne, Esquire (1573) for immorality and slander, Gascoigne published a second version two years later. He referred to himself by name in several of his poems, including the self-flattering "Gascoigne's Woodmanship." Gascoigne's career contrasts with that of Thomas Sackville, earl of Dorset. Sackville was one of the first authors to produce original works in blank verse. He went on to a distinguished career as a courtier—unlike Gascoigne, who remained on the outskirts of respectable society.


Popular collections of poetry from the reign of Henry VIII had a strong influence on many early Elizabethan writers. As a result, much Elizabethan poetry is similar to the poetry of an earlier generation. It was not until Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney, both born in the 1550s, began experimenting with new forms and themes that Elizabethan poetry took on a distinct style of its own. Spenser, Sidney, and other Elizabethan poets blended humanism with Protestant beliefs and English nationalism.

Elizabethan Styles. Edmund Spenser's the Shepheardes Calender (1579) marked a turning point in English poetry. In this complex work, Spenser combined the pastoral* poems of the ancient Roman writer Virgil with a book of agricultural instructions from his own time. Like other pastoral poetry, this piece placed value on contentment rather than on personal ambition. It was also a political work. It expresses Spenser's nationalism at a time when many English feared that their Protestant queen would marry a French Catholic prince.

Spenser's use of language often carried hidden political meanings. His choice of outdated English spellings and words reminds his readers of history and England's literary traditions. In both the Shepheardes Calender and The Faerie Queene (1596), an epic* in honor of Elizabeth I, Spenser brought English creative writing to a new level of sophistication.

Philip Sidney, the poet to whom Spenser dedicated Shepheardes Calender, adapted classical poetic structures to English in his own works. In Astrophel and Stella (1591), he used both sonnets and Greek forms to revisit some of Petrarch's themes. Sidney's poems show a mastery of meter and rhetoric. They also reflect Protestant values, most obviously in the translation of the biblical Psalms that he left unfinished at his death.

Elizabethan poets frequently used extended metaphors* and allegories* in their work. Sidney built layers of metaphor into The Faerie Queene, and metaphors lie at the heart of many Elizabethan sonnets. Although William Shakespeare (1564–1616) questioned the value of metaphor in sonnets 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") and 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"), he relied on metaphor in these and other works. The verses of John Donne (1572–1631) used metaphor to create logical puzzles and dense arguments. Such figurative language was less popular in religious and satiric* verse, which more often used a plain, straightforward style.

Forms of Elizabethan Poetry. Elizabethans valued imitation. Poets often drew on models from classical, Italian, and French literature. In addition, they commonly worked within standard forms, such as the complaint, the satire, the sonnet, and the epic.

Complaints, like pastoral poetry, stress the dangers of ambition and the virtues of a simple life. However, they tend to be more pointed and obviously political than pastoral works. Many complaints follow a common format—the ghost of a famous person asks the poet to describe how he or she fell from grace in life. Complaints might follow the misadventures of a ruler or a royal mistress in order to warn readers against misbehavior. Another form that often took a political slant was the satire, which became popular in the 1590s. In 1599, the government passed an order suppressing satiric works. However, this order seems to have had little effect. Numerous writers published satires before the end of the century.

The sonnet form became popular with writers after the appearance of Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, a sonnet sequence. Every would-be poet in the 1590s tried his hand at writing sonnets. Many of these verses, such as those of Shakespeare, are dark and complex. Donne's Songs and Sonnets (1633) also includes satiric love poetry. The sonnet form not only required poets to follow strict rules of meter and rhyme but also inspired them to use Petrarch's themes. For example, they often focused on a love interest—usually a lady—whom the speaker of the poem could not have. The speaker might discuss this lady's many virtues and complain that she would not yield to him.

Renaissance poets considered the epic the highest form of poetic achievement. However, writers disagreed about what distinguished an epic from other forms of writing. Some believed that epics should reflect historical events. Others felt that poetry and history were separate and that poets needed to write with their own ideas. A related, shorter form was the Ovidian minor epic, a love poem based on the work of the ancient Roman poet Ovid. These pieces included elements of classical mythology as well as episodes from true epics. Examples of the form include Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander (published after Marlowe's death in 1593) and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593).


Neither English poetry nor English politics was as unified after 1603 as it had been during Elizabeth's reign. Civil war divided England, and English poets developed distinct styles that set them apart from one another. The most influential poets of the early 1600s were John Donne and Ben Jonson.

Metaphysical Poetry. The term metaphysical describes English poetry of the 1600s that did not separate emotion from reason. Metaphysical poems centered on complex ideas called "conceits" and used dramatic language. The main subject in these poems was love—romantic, sexual, or divine. Metaphysical poets used shocking metaphors and wild exaggeration to express their passions.

The leading metaphysical poet was John Donne. His writings about romantic and sexual love are both playful and dramatic. Unlike poems in the style of Petrarch, in which speakers pine for lovers they cannot have, Donne's poems focus on the mutual experience of love. His poetry shows a powerful connection between soul and body. Religious poet George Herbert (1593–1633) mastered many of Donne's effects in his own writing. In poems such as "The Collar," Herbert wrote of "the many spiritual conflicts that have passed [between] God and my soul."

Jonson's Influence. The poetry of Jonson and his "sons" (the poets he influenced) was more social than the highly personal writings of poets such as Donne. Jonsonian poems performed a variety of social and moral purposes such as glorifying the dead, instructing the living, honoring places and events, and praising pleasures. They often relied on classical traditions and took the form of letters to friends. Jonson's Works (1616) included two collections of poems in a classical style, as well as elegant translations and adaptations of classical poetry.

The work of Jonson's followers was varied. Thomas Carew (ca. 1595–ca. 1640) wrote verse letters to Jonson and an elegy* to Donne. On a lighter note, Robert Herrick (ca. 1591–1674) wrote "His Farewell to Sack" and "The Welcome to Sack," in which the speaker first swears off and then embraces alcohol. As England entered into civil war in the 1640s, Jonson's "sons" took the side of the royalty against the Puritan* reformers. Although some of their poems are anti-Puritan only in flavor (such as Herrick's "Delight in Disorder"), others are more direct. While in jail for supporting the king, Richard Lovelace (1618–1657) wrote "To Althea from Prison." In it, he boldly declared, "Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage."

Spenserian and Female Poets. Although many poets of the 1600s used Spenser's themes and styles, these writers often had little else in common. Many of them wrote, as Spenser had, in the pastoral mode. Michael Drayton (1563–1631) and other writers also followed in Spenser's footsteps by using their pastoral writings to offer political criticism. Andrew Marvell also wrote pastoral poetry during this time, but he did not focus on allegory as many other Spenserians did. Instead, his work explored psychological and playful themes.

In the early 1600s collections of female poets' work began to appear in print. Most of these women followed the poetic forms of their time. Mary Wroth (ca. 1587-ca. 1651), Sidney's niece, continued her uncle's legacy of copying Petrarch's style in her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621). However, she introduced a female speaker. Jonson and others praised Wroth for her accomplishments. Aemelia Lanyer (1569–1645) included the beginnings of feminist viewpoints in her complaint Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews; 1611). Today, recently discovered poems in manuscript are helping to revive interest in these and other female authors of the period.

(See alsoDrama, English; English Language and Literature; Humanism; Latin Language and Literature; Poetry. )

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* iambic pentameter

line of poetry consisting of ten syllables, or five metric feet, with emphasis placed on every other syllable

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* couplet

pair of rhyming lines that appear together, as at the end of a sonnet or stanza of verse

* blank verse

unrhymed verse, usually in iambic pentameter—lines of poetry consisting of ten syllables, or five metric feet, with emphasis placed on every other syllable

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* metaphor

figure of speech in which one object or idea is directly identified with a different object or idea

* allegory

literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* satiric

involving the use of satire, the ridicule of human wickedness and foolishness in a literary or artistic work

Conventional Elizabethans

Elizabethan readers expected authors to use existing literary traditions from Europe and from ancient Greece and Rome. Part of the author's task was to blend these traditions with his or her own ideas and inventions. Elizabethans didn't think it was odd to find nymphs singing in an epic or a lover making himself miserable in a sonnet because they were used to seeing these elements in literature. Instead, they tried to see how authors used traditions creatively to convey their own ideas.

* elegy

type of poem often used to express sorrow for one who has died

* Puritan

English Protestant group that wanted to simplify the ceremonies of the Church of England and eliminate all traces of Catholicism