English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century

The poetry of the sixteenth century defies facile generalizations. Although the same can obviously be said for the poetry of other periods as well, this elusiveness of categorization is particularly characteristic of the sixteenth century. It is difficult to pinpoint a century encompassing both the growling meter of John Skelton and the polished prosody of Sir Philip Sidney, and consequently, past efforts to provide overviews of the period have proven unhelpful. Most notably, C. S. Lewis in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (1954) contrived an unfortunate division between what he called “drab” poetry and “Golden” poetry. What he means by this distinction is never entirely clear, and Lewis himself further confuses the dichotomy by occasionally suggesting that his own term “drab” need not have a pejorative connotation, although when he applies it to specific poets, it is clear that he intends it to be damaging. Further-more, his distinction leads him into oversimplifications. As Lewis would have it, George Gascoigne is mostly drab (a condition that he sees as befitting a poet of the “drab” mid-century) though blessed with occasional “Golden” tendencies, while Robert Southwell, squarely placed in the “Golden” period, is really a mediocre throwback to earlier “drab” poetry. Such distinctions are hazy and not helpful to the reader, who suspects that Lewis defines “drab” and “Golden” simply as what he himself dislikes or prefers in poetry.

The muddle created by Lewis’s terminology has led to inadequate treatments of the sixteenth century in the classroom. Perhaps reinforced by the simplicity of his dichotomy, teachers have traditionally depicted the fruits of the century as not blossoming until the 1580’s, with the sonneteers finally possessing the talent and good sense to perfect the experiments with the Petrarchan sonnet form first begun by Sir Thomas Wyatt early in the century. Students have been inevitably taught that between Wyatt and Sidney stretched a wasteland of mediocre poetry, disappointing primarily because so many poets failed to apply their talents to continuing the Petrarchan experiments begun by Wyatt. Thus, indoctrinated in the axiom that, as concerns the sixteenth century, “good” poetry is Petrarchan and “bad” poetry is that which fails to work with Petrarchan conceits, teachers deal in the classroom mostly with the poets of the 1580’s and later, ignoring the other poetic currents of the early and mid-century. It has been difficult indeed to overcome Lewis’s dichotomy of “drab” and “Golden.”

Fortunately, there have been studies of sixteenth century poetry that are sensitive to non-Petrarchan efforts, and these studies deserve recognition as providing a better perspective for viewing the sixteenth century. In 1939, Yvor Winters’s essay “The Sixteenth Century Lyric in England: A Critical and Historical Reinterpretation” focused on some of the less notable poets of the period, such as Barnabe Googe, George Turberville, and Gascoigne, who, until Winters’s essay, had been dismissed simply because they were not Petrarchan in sentiment, and the essay also helped to dispel the notion that the aphoristic, proverbial content of their poetry was symptomatic of their simple-mindedness and lack of talent. By pointing out how their sparse style contributes to, rather than detracts from, the moral content of their poetry, Winters’s essay is instrumental in helping the reader develop a sense of appreciation for these often overlooked poets. In addition to Winters’s essay, Douglas L. Peterson’s book The English Lyric from Wyatt to Donne: A History of the Plain and Eloquent Styles (1967), taking up where Winters left off, identified two major poetic currents in the sixteenth century: the plain style and the eloquent style. Peterson provided a more realistic and less judgmental assessment of the non-Petrarchans as practitioners of the “plain” rhetorical style, a term that was a welcome relief from Lewis’s “drab.” Thus, Winters’s and Peterson’s efforts were helpful in destroying the damaging stereotypes about the “bad” poets of the mid-century.


Poetry as Craft

Despite the difficulties inherent in summarizing a century as diverse as the sixteenth, it is possible to discern a unifying thread running through the poetry of the period. The unity stems from the fact that, perhaps more than any other time, the sixteenth century was consistently “poetic”; that is, the poets were constantly aware of themselves as poetic craftsmen. From Skelton to Edmund Spenser, poets were self-conscious of their pursuits, regardless of theme. This poetic self-consciousness was manifested primarily in the dazzling display of metrical, stanzaic, and prosodic experimentation that characterized the efforts of all the poets, from the most talented to the most mediocre. In particular, the century experienced the development of, or refinement upon, for example, the poulter’s measure (alternate twelve-and fourteen-syllable lines), blank verse, heroic couplets, rime royal, ottava rima, terza rima, Spenserian stanza, douzains, fourteeners—all appearing in a variety of genres. Characteristic of the century was the poet watching himself be a poet, and every poet of the century would have found himself in agreement with Sidney’s assessment of the poet in his Defence of Poesie (1595) as prophet or seer, whose craft is suffused with divine inspiration.

Social Context

This process of conscious invention and self-monitoring is one key to understanding the poetry of the sixteenth century. It is a curious fact that whereas in other periods, historical and social factors play a large role in shaping poetic themes, in the sixteenth century, such extra literary influences did little to dictate the nature of the poetry. Surprisingly, even though Copernicus’s theory of a heliocentric universe was known by mid-century, the poetry barely nodded to the New Science or to the new geographical discoveries. Certainly, the century experienced almost constant political and religious turbulence, providing abundant fare for topical themes; a less apolitical period one can hardly imagine. It was the prose, however, more than the poetry, that sought to record the buffetings created by the fact that the official religion in England changed four times between 1530 and 1560.

It seems that the instability created by this uneasiness had the effect of turning the poets inward, rather than outward to political, social, and religious commentary (with the exceptions of the broadside ballads, pseudo journalistic poems intended for the uncultivated, and the verse chronicle history so popular at the close of the century), bearing out the hypothesis that good satire can flourish only in periods of relative stability. For ex-ample, despite the number of obvious targets, the genre of political satire did not flourish in the sixteenth century, and its sporadic representatives, in particular anticlerical satire, a warhorse left over from the Middle Ages, are barely noteworthy. A major figure in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) is Gloriana, a figure depicting Queen Elizabeth, but she is an idealized rendering, only one of many such celebrations in poetry of Queen Elizabeth, not intended to provide a realistic insight into her character.


Rise of Vernacular Languages

Thus, to the poet of the sixteenth century, the primary consideration of the poetic pursuit was not who or what to write about, but rather how to write. The reason for this emphasis on style over content is simple enough to isolate. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the English language was experiencing severe growing pains. In fact, throughout Europe the vernacular was struggling to overthrow the tyranny of Latin and to discover its essential identity. Nationalism was a phenomenon taking root every-where, and inevitably, the cultivation of native languages was seen as the logical instrument of expediting the development of national identity. Italy and France were under-going revolts against Latin, and Joachim du Bellay’s La Défense et illustration de lalangue française (1549; The Defence and Illustration of the French Language, 1939) proclaimed explicitly that great works can be written in the vernacular. In England, the invention of new words was encouraged, and war was waged on “inkhornisms,” terms of affectation usually held over from the old Latin or French, used liberally by Skelton. Thus, George Puttenham, an influential critical theorist of the period, discusses the question of whether a poet would be better advised to use “pierce” rather than “penetrate,” and Richard Mulcaster, Spenser’s old headmaster, was moved to announce, “I honor the Latin, but I worship English.”

It was no easy task, however, to legislate prescribed changes in something as malleable as language, and the grandeur of the effort nevertheless often produced comic results.Sixteenth century English vernacular, trying to weed out both Latin and French influences, produced such inelegant and uneasy bastardizations as “mannerlier,” “newel-ties,” “hable” (a hangover from Latin habilis), and “semblably,” leading William Webbe in his Discourse of English Poetry (1586) to rail in a sneering pun about “this brutish poetry,” with “brutish” looming as a veiled reference to “British.” Although the sixteenth century was constantly discovering that the subtleties of perfecting a new language could not be mastered overnight, the effort was nevertheless sustained and paved the way for a future confidence in what the vernacular could achieve. Words that often strike the modern reader as outdated, stodgy pedantry are, in fact, the uncertain by-products of innovative experimentation.

Thus, to understand sixteenth century poetry is to ignore the stability of language,which is taken for granted in later centuries, and to understand the challenge that the poets experienced in shaping the new language to fit their poetry. Working with new words meant changes in the old classical syntax, and, in turn, changes in the syntax meant changes in the old classical versifications. These changes often resulted in frustration for the poet (and for the reader), but, depending on the skills of the poet, the result of all this experimentation could mean new rhyme schemes, new meters, and new stanzaic structures. In the wake of all the excitement generated by this constant experimentation, the poets cannot be blamed for often judging innovations in content as secondary to the new prosody. The volatility and flux of the language siphoned all energies into perfecting new styles not into content.



The zeal for metrical experimentation that characterized the sixteenth century is manifested not only in the original poetry of the period but also in the numerous translations that were being turned out. The primary purpose of the translations was to record the works of the venerable authorities in the new vernacular, and it is significant that Webbe refers to these works not as being “translated” but as being “Englished.” Virgil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) was a favorite target for the translators, with Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, publishing a translation in 1553, Thomas Phaer in 1558, and Richard Stanyhurst in 1582. Stanyhurst translated only the first four books, and he achieved a metrical monstrosity by attempting to translate Virgil in English hexameters, reflecting the tensions of cramming old subject matter into new forms. Ovid was another favorite of the translators. Arthur Golding translated the Metamorphoses (c. 8c.e.; English translation, 1567) in 1567, and also in that year, Turberville translated the Heroides (before 8c.e.; English translation, 1567), featuring elaborate experiments with the poulter’s measure, fourteeners, and blank verse. Most of the translations of the period may be dismissed as the works of versifiers, not poets (with the exception of George Chapman’s Homer, which has the power of an original poem), but they are valuable reflections of the constant metrical experimentations taking place and, subsequently, of the ongoing process of shaping the new vernacular.

Literary Theory

An overview of the poetry of the 1500’s would be incomplete without an introduction to the critical theory of the period and the ways in which it recorded the successes and failures of the new vernacular experimentations. Not surprisingly, critical theory of the age was abundant. An obvious representative is Sidney’s Defence of Poesie. The elegance and polish of this argument for the superiority of poetry over any other aesthetic pursuit has made it the most outstanding example of Renaissance critical theory. The easy grace of the work, however, tends to obscure the fact that the new experiments in prosody had created a lively, often nasty debate in critical theory between the guardians of the old and the spokespersons for the new. There were many other works of critical theory closer than the Defense of Poesie to the pulse rate of the arguments.

The turbulent nature of the critical theory of the period (and, by implications, the turbulence of the poetry itself) is reflected by Gascoigne, who in his “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse” (1575) serves as a hearty spokesperson for the new vernacular, advocating a more widespread use of monosyllables in poetry and a rejection of words derived from foreign vocabularies so that “the truer Englishman you shall seem and the less you shall smell of the inkhorn,” and decrying poets who cling to the old Latin syntax by placing their adjectives after the noun. In his Art of English Poesy (1589), Puttenham scolds those poets who “wrench” their words to fit the rhyme,“for it is a sign that such a maker is not copious in his own language.” Not every critic, however, was so enchanted with the new experimentation. In his Art of Rhetorique (1553), Thomas Wilson called for continued practice of the old classical forms, and he sought to remind poets that words of Latin and Greek derivation are useful in composition. Contempt for new techniques in versification pervades Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570). He condemns innovations in rhyming, which he dismisses as de-rived from the “Gothes and Hunnes,” and calls for renewed imitation of classical forms. In his Discourse of English Poetry (1586), William Webbe is even less charitable. He scorns the new experiments in prosody as “this tinkerly verse,” and he campaigns for keeping alive the old, classical quantitative verse, in which the meter is governed by the time required to pronounce a syllable, not by accentuation. Clearly the severity of the critical debate needs to be kept in the forefront as one begins consideration of the poetry of the period; to fail to do so is to overlook what the poets were trying to accomplish.

Allegories and Dream Visions

The opening of the sixteenth century, however, was anything but a harbinger of new developments to come. Like most centuries, the sixteenth began on a conservative, even reactionary note, looking backward to medieval literature, rather than forward to the new century. Allegories and dream visions written in seven-line stanzas, favorite vehicles of the medieval poets, dominated the opening years of the sixteenth century. Under Henry VII the best poets were Scottish—William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, and Sir David Lyndsay—and they were devoted imitators of Geoffrey Chaucer. The first English poet to assert himself in the new century was Stephen Hawes, who published The Pas-time of Pleasure in 1509 which represented uninspired medievalism at its worst. The work is constructed as a dream-vision allegory. An almost direct imitation of John Lydgate’s work, The Pastime of Pleasure narrates the hero Grand Amour’s instruction in the Tower of Doctrine, employing a profusion of stock, allegorical characters reminiscent of the morality plays. The old medieval forms, especially those combining allegory and church satire, were hard to die. In 1536, Robert Shyngleton wrote The Pilgrim’s Tale, a vulgar, anticlerical satire directly evocative of Chaucer, and as late as 1556, John Heywood wrote The Spider and the Fly, a lengthy allegory depicting the Roman Catholics as flies, the Protestants as spiders, and Queen Mary as wielding a cleaning broom.

John Skelton

Another heavy practitioner of the dream allegory was John Skelton (c. 1460-1529),one of the most puzzling figures of the century. Skelton has long been an object of negative fascination for literary historians—and with good reason. He deserves a close look, however, because, despite his reactionary themes, he was the first metrical experimenter of the century. His paradoxical undertaking of being both metrical innovator and medieval reactionary has produced some of the oddest, even comic, poetry in the English language. His infamous Skeltonic meter, a bewildering mixture of short, irregular lines and an array of varying rhyme schemes, relies on stress, alliteration, and rhyme, rather than on syllabic count, and as a result, the reader is left either outraged or amused. His subject matter was inevitably a throwback to earlier medieval themes. He wrote two dream-vision allegories, The Bowge of Court (1499), a court satire, and The Garlande of Laurell (1523). Skelton is still read today, however, because of his fractured meter. The theme of his Collyn Clout (1522), a savage satire on the corruption of the English clergy (whose title, incidentally, was the inspiration for Spenser’s Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, 1591), is of interest to the modern reader not so much for its content as for its versification. In the work, Skelton describes his own rhyme as being “Tatterèd and jaggèd/ Rudely rain-beaten/ Rusty and moth-eaten.” Skelton’s rhyme arrives fast and furious, and it is possible to conclude that he may have been the object of Puttenhm’s attack on poets who “wrench” their words to fit the rhyme.


Continental influences

Despite his original metrical experimentation, Skelton was still entrenched in inkhornisms and looked backward for his themes. Paradoxically, as is often the case, it can be the poet with the least talent who nevertheless injects into his poetry vague hints of things to come. Alexander Barclay wrote no poetry of the slightest worth, but embedded in the mediocrity lay the beginnings of a new respect for the vernacular. To the literary historian, Barclay is of interest for two reasons. First, he was the sixteenth century’s first borrower from the Continent. Specifically, in his Certayn Egloges (1570), he was the first to imitate the eclogues of Mantuan, which were first printed in 1498 and which revolutionized the genre of the pastoral eclogue by making it a vehicle for anticlerical satire, although such satire was of course nothing new in England at that time. Barclay’s second importance, however (and perhaps the more significant), lies in the fact that he was the first to use the vernacular for the pastoral.

Tottel’s Miscellany

It was not until mid-century that English borrowings from the Continent were put on full display. In 1557, a collection of lyrics known as Tottel’s Miscellany was published, and the importance of this work cannot be overemphasized. It was innovative not only in its function as a collection of poems by various authors, some of them anonymous,but also in the profusion of prosodic experimentation that it offered.

Tottel’s Miscellany represented nothing less than England’s many-faceted response to the Continental Renaissance. In this collection, every conceivable metrical style (including some strange and not wholly successful experiments with structural alliteration) was attempted in an array of genres, including sonnets, epigrams, elegies, eulogies, and poems of praise and Christian consolation, often resulting in changes in the older Continental forms. Truly there is no better representation of poets self-consciously watching themselves be poets.

Nevertheless, unfair stereotypes about the collection abound. Perhaps because of Lewis’s distinction between “drab” age and “Golden” age poetry, students are often taught that the sole merit of Tottel’s Miscellany is its inclusion of the lyrics of Wyatt and Surrey (which had been composed years earlier)—in particular, their imitations of the amatory verse of Petrarch. The standard classroom presentation lauds Wyatt and Surrey for introducing Petrarch and his sonnet form into England. Students are further taught that the long-range effects of Tottel’s Miscellany proved to be disappointing since no poet was motivated to continue Wyatt’s and Surrey’s experiments with Petrarch for decades thereafter. Thus, Tottel’s Miscellany is blamed for being essentially a flash-in-the-pan work lacking in any significant, literary influence. Such disappointment is absurdly unjustified, however, in view of what the publisher Richard Tottel and Wyatt and Surrey were trying to accomplish. Tottel published his collection “to the honor of the English tong,” and in that sense the work was a success, as the conscious goal of all its contributors was to improve the vernacular. Furthermore, its most talented contributors, Wyatt and Surrey, accomplished what they set out to do: to investigate fully the possibilities of the short lyric, something that had never before been attempted in England, and, in Surrey’s case, to experiment further with blank verse and the poulter’s measure.

By no stretch of the imagination did Wyatt view himself as the precursor of a Petrarchan movement in England, and he made no attempt to cultivate followers. In fact, despite the superficial similarity of subject matter, Wyatt’s poetry has little in common with the Petrarchan sonneteers of the close of the century, and he most assuredly would have resented any implication that his poetry was merely an unpolished harbinger of grander efforts to come. As Douglas L. Peterson has pointed out, Wyatt used Petrarch to suit his own purposes, mainly to perfect his “plain” style; and Yvor Winters maintains that Wyatt is closer to Gascoigne than Sidney. Whereas the sonneteers of the close of the century composed decidedly in the “eloquent” style, Wyatt expressed con-tempt for trussed-up images and pursued the virtues of a simple, unadorned style.


Plain Style

Thus, far from attempting to initiate a new “movement” of Petrarchan eloquence, many of the poems in Tottel’s Miscellany sought to refine the possibilities of the plain style. As Peterson defines it, the plain style is characterized by plain, proverbial, aphoristic sentiments. It is a style often unappreciated by modern readers because its obvious simplicity is often mistaken for simple-mindedness. The practitioners of the plain style, however, were very skilled in tailoring their verse to fit the needs of the poem’s message, the pursuit of simplicity becoming a challenge, not a symptom of flagging inspiration. Skelton unwittingly summarizes the philosophy of the plain style when, commenting on his rhyme in Collyn Clout, he instructs the reader: “If ye take well therewith/ It hath in it some pith.”

Thus, a plain-style poet expressing disillusionment with the excesses of love or extolling the virtues of frugality, rather than adorning his poem with an abundance of extravagant images, he instead pared his sentiments down to the minimum, with the intense restraint itself illuminating the poet’s true feelings about love or money. The desiderata of the plain style were tightness and disciplined restraint. In the hands of an untalented poet, such as Heywood, who wrote A Dialogue of Proverbs (1546, 1963), the aphoristic messages could easily become stultifying; but as practiced by a poet with the skill of Wyatt,the economy of rendering a truth simply could produce a pleasurable effect. Interestingly, near the close of the century, when the eloquent style was all the rage, Sir Walter Ralegh, Thomas Nashe, and Fulke Greville often employed the techniques of the plain style.

Further Anthologies

The three decades following the publication of Tottel’s Miscellany have been stereotyped as a wasteland when poetry languished desultorily until the advent of the sonneteers in the 1580’s. Nothing could be more unfair to the poetry of the period than to view it as struggling in an inspirational darkness. Amazingly, such a stereotype man-ages to overlook the profusion of poetry collections that Tottel’s Miscellany spawned. Though admittedly the poetry of some of these collections is forgettable, nevertheless the continual appearance of these collections for the next fifty years is an impressive indication of the extent to which Tottel’s philosophy of prosodic experimentation continued to exert an influence.

The first imitation of Tottel to be published was The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), the most popular of the imitations. As its title would indicate, a number of amatory poems were included, but the predominant poems had didactic, often pious themes, which offered ample opportunity for further experimentation in the plain style. A number of reasonably accomplished poets contributed to the collection, including Sir Richard Grenville, Jaspar Heywood, Thomas Churchyard, and Barnabe Rich. Another successful collection was Brittons Bowre of Delights (1591), interesting for its wide range of metrical experimentation, especially involving poulter’s measure and the six-line iambic pentameter stanza.

Imitations of Tottel’s works did not always prove successful. In 1577, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions appeared, a monotonous collection of poems whose oppressive theme was the vanity of love and pleasure, and it was as plagued with affectations and jargon as Brittons Bowre of Delights was blessed with fresh experimentation. Not everyone was pleased, however, with the new direction the lyric was taking after Tottel. In 1565, John Hall published his Court of Virtue, an anti-Tottel endeavor designed to preach that literature must be moral. In his work the poet is instructed by Lady Arete to cease pandering to the vulgar tastes of the public and instead to write moral, instructive lyrics, an appeal which results in the poet’s moralizing of Wyatt’s lyrics.

The experimental spirit of Tottel carried over into the works of individual poets, as well. From such an unlikely source as Thomas Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Points of Husbandry (1557), an unassuming almanac of farming tips, explodes a variety of metrical experimentation, including Skeltonics, acrostics, and other complicated stanzaic forms. Despite his willingness to experiment, however, Tusser was not an accomplished talent, and thus there are three poets, Googe, Turberville, and Gascoigne, to whom one must turn to refute the stereotype of the mid-century “wasteland.” Too often viewed as bungling imitators of Tottel, these poets deserve a closer look as vital talents who were keeping poetry alive during the so-called wasteland years.


Barnabe Googe

In his Eclogues, Epitaphs, and Sonnets (1563), Barnabe Googe’s explicit poetic mission was to imitate Tottel. Working mostly in the didactic tradition, he wrote some epitaphs and poems in praise of friends, but his eclogues are of primary interest to the literary historian. He revived the Mantuan eclogue, which had been lying dormant in Eng-land after Barclay, and his eclogues were good enough to offer anticipations of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579). Another noteworthy work is his Cupido Conquered (1563), a dream-vision allegory, which Lewis dismissed as “purely medieval.” The dismissal is unfair, however, because, despite the throwback to medieval de-vices, the plot, in which the languishing, lovesick poet is chided by his muses for his shameful lack of productivity, reveals Googe’s self-consciousness of himself as crafts-man, a characteristic pose for a poet of the sixteenth century.

George Turberville

George Turberville’s dexterity with metrics in his translation of Ovid has already been mentioned. Like Googe, Turberville, in his Epitaphs, Epigrams, Songs, and Sonnets (1567), carried on with Tottelian experimentation, primarily in didactic poems employing poulter’s measure and fourteeners written in the plain style.

George Gascoigne

George Gascoigne has been late in receiving the attention that he deserves, his poetry serving as the most impressive evidence disproving the existence of a postTottel wasteland. Predictably, Lewis describes him as a precursor of golden age poetry, ignoring Gascoigne’s contributions to the plain style. In his A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde up in One Small Poesie (1573, poetry and prose; revised as The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire, 1575), Gascoigne was the first to experiment with Petrarch and the sonnet form since Wyatt and Surrey, but he was no slavish imitator. Gascoigne’s poetry is often coarser and more lewd than that of Petrarch, but he never sacrifices a robust wit. In addition, he is an interesting figure for his variations in the sonnet form, featuring the octave-sestet division of the Petrarchan form, but in an English, or abab rhyme scheme. Puttenham refers to his “good meter” and “plentiful vein.”

Elizabethan Poetry

Thus, the poetry of the latter part of the century, the great age of the eloquent style,must not be viewed as a semi-miraculous phoenix, rising from the ashes between Wyatt’s experiments with Petrarch and the advent of Sidney. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the Elizabethan era ranks as one of the outstanding poetic periods of any century, its development of the eloquent style ranking as an outstanding achievement. A valuable representative of what the eloquent style was trying to accomplish is Sir John Davies’ Orchestra: Or, A Poeme of Dauncing (1596, 1622). In his Elizabethan World Picture (1943), E. M. W. Tillyard analyzes the poem at length as a fitting symbol of the Elizabethans’ ob-session with cosmic order. Though accurate enough, Tillyard’s discussion places too much emphasis on the poem’s content and does not pay enough attention to the style in which the message is delivered. In the poem, the suitor Antinous launches an elaborate discourse designed to persuade Penelope, waiting for her Odysseus to return, to dance. Through Antinous’s lengthy and involved encomium to cosmic order and rhythm, Davies was not attempting a literal plea to Penelope to get up and dance. Rather, he was using Antinous as a vehicle for an ingenious argument, ostentatious in its erudition and profusion of images; in effect, Antinous’s argument is the repository of Davies’ experiments in the eloquent style. It is the dazzling display of the process of argumentation itself, not the literal effort to persuade Penelope, that is the essence of the poem. The way in which the poem is written is more important than its content, and in that sense (but in that sense only)the goal of the eloquent style is no different from that of the plain style.


Petrarchan and “eloquent” Style

When one thinks of sixteenth century poetry and the eloquent style, however, one al-most immediately thinks of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence, and one explanation for the almost fanatic renewal of interest in Petrarch was the inevitable shift of interests in poetic style. The plain style, so dominant for almost half a century, was beginning to play itself out, a primary indication being the decline in use of the epigram, whose pithy withheld little appeal for Elizabethan poets. The more skillful among them were anxious to perfect a new style, specifically the “eloquent” style, almost the total antithesis of the plain style. Not particularly concerned with expressing universal truths, the eloquent style, as practiced by Davies, sought embellishment, rather than pithy restraint, and a profusion of images, rather than minimal, tight expression. The eloquent style effected some interesting changes in the handling of the old Petrarchan themes, as well. It should be noted that in his experiments with Petrarch, Wyatt chafed at the indignities suffered by the courtly lover. By contrast, the sonneteers emphasized with relish the travails of the lover, who almost luxuriates in his state of rejection. In fact, there is no small trace off in de siècle decadence in the cult of the spurned lover that characterized so many of the sonnets of the period, most notably Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), and it decidedly signaled the end of the plain style.

Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Poems

Sonnets and Sonnet Sequences

The sonnet sequence, a collection of sonnets recording the lover’s successes and failures in courting his frequently unsympathetic mistress, was practiced by the brilliant and mediocre alike. Of course, the two most outstanding poets of the century pioneered the form—Sidney in his Astrophel and Stella, who in the true spirit of the poetic self-consciousness of the century wrote sonnets about the writing of sonnets and wrote some sonnets entirely in Alexandrines, and Spenser in his Amoretti (1595), who, in addition to introducing refinements in the sonnet structure, also intellectualized the cult of the rejected lover by analyzing the causes of rejection.

In the next twenty years the contributions to the genre were dizzying: Greville’s Caelica (wr. 1577, pb. 1633); Thomas Watson’s Passionate Century of Love (1582); Samuel Daniel’s Delia (1592); Henry Constable’s Diana (1592); Thomas Lodge’s Phillis (1593); Giles Fletcher’s Licia (1593); Barnabe Barnes’s Parthenophil and Parthenophe (1593); Bartholomew Griffin’s Fidessa (1593); Michael Drayton’s Ideas Mirrour (1594), noteworthy for its experiments with rhyme; The Phoenix Nest (1593), a collection of Petrarchan sonnets in a wide variety of meters by George Peele, Nicholas Breton, Thomas Lodge, and others—the list of accomplished poets and tinkering poetasters was almost endless.

By the close of the century, so many mediocre poets had turned out sonnet sequences, and the plight of the rejected lover had reached such lugubrious proportions that the form inevitably decayed. The cult of the masochistic lover was becoming tediously commonplace, and one of the major triumphs of the eloquent style, the Petrarchan paradox (for example, Wyatt’s “I burn, and freeze like ice”) lost its appeal of surprise and tension as it became overworked, predictable, and trite. The genre had lost all traces of originality, and it is interesting to consider the fact that the modern definition of a sonneteer is an inferior poet. As early as 1577, Greville in his Caelica had perceived how easily in the sonnet sequence numbing repetition could replace fresh invention, and to maintain some vitality in his sequence his subject matter evolves from the complaints of the rejected lover to a renunciation of worldly vanity and expressions of disappointment in the disparity between “ideal” love and the imperfect love that exists in reality. (For this reason, of all the sonneteers Greville is the only precursor of the themes so prevalent in seventeenth century devotional poetry.)

The success and subsequent decline of the sonnet sequence left it wide open to parody. Many of the sonnets of William Shakespeare, who himself revolutionized the son-net structure in England, are veiled satiric statements on the trite excesses of Petrarchan images (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”), indicating his impatience with the old, worn-out sentiments. Davies’ collection of Gulling Sonnets (c. 1594) was an explicit parody of Petrarchan absurdities and weary lack of invention, and, following their publication, the genre spun into an irreversible decline.


Mythological-erotic Narrative

As the sonnet declined, however, another form of amatory verse was being developed: the mythological-erotic narrative. This form chose erotic themes from mythology, embellishing the narrative with sensuous conceits and quasipornographic descriptions. It was a difficult form to master because it required titillation without descending into vulgarity and light touches of sophisticated humor without descending into burlesque. Successful examples of the mythological-erotic narrative are Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598; completed by Chapman), Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593), Chapman’s Ovid’s Banquet of Sense(1595), Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe (1595), and Lodge’s Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589). Like the sonnet, the mythological narrative fell into decline, as evidenced by John Marston’s The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image and Certain Satires (1598), in which the decadence of the sculptor drooling lustfully over his statue was too absurdly indelicate for the fragile limits of the genre.

Satiric and Religious Verse

As the mythological narrative and the sonnet declined, both social satire and religious verse experienced a corresponding upswing. The steady growth of a middle-class reading audience precipitated an increased interest in satire, a genre which had not been represented with any distinction since Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas, a Satyre (1576). Understandably, though inaccurately, Joseph Hall labeled himself the first English satirist. Juvenalian satire flourished in his Virgidemiarum (1597), similar to Davies’ Gulling Sonnets, followed by Everard Guilpin’s Skialetheia: Or, Shadow of Truth in Certain Epigrams and Satyres (1598), which attacks the “wimpring sonnets” and “puling Elegies” of the love poets, and Marston’s The Scourge of Villainy (1598).

Perhaps feeling reinforced by the indignation of the satirists, religious verse proliferated at the end of the century. Bedazzled by the great age of the sonnet, the modern reader tends to generalize that the latter decades of the century were a purely secular period for poetry. Such a view, however, overlooks the staggering amount of religious verse that was being turned out, and it should be remembered by the modern reader that to the reader of the sixteenth century, verse was typified not by a Sidney sonnet, but by a versified psalm. Throughout the century, experiments with Petrarch ebbed and flowed, but the reading public was never without religious writings, including enormous numbers of sermons, devotional manuals, collections of prayers and meditations, verse  saints’ lives, devotional verse, and, of course, an overflow of rhyming psalters. Versifying the psalter had begun as early as the fourteenth century, but its popularity and practice went unsurpassed in the sixteenth. Although many excellent poets tried their hand at the Psalms, including Wyatt, Spenser, and Sidney, who saw them as legitimate sources of poetry, these versifications were led by the Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins edition of 1549, and it represents a mediocre collection of verse. Nevertheless, the uncultivated reading public hailed it as an inspired work, and people who refused to read any poetry at all devoured the Sternhold and Hopkins edition. Popular collections among the Elizabethans were William Hunnis’s Seven Sobs of a Sorrowfull Soule for Sinne (1583) and William Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie (1588).

By the close of the century, attempts at religious verse by more accomplished poets were surpassing the efforts of hack versifiers. While the satirists were ridiculing the atrophied sonnet sequence on aesthetic grounds, other writers were attacking it on moral grounds, and perceptions of what poetry should be and do were shifting as the sonnet lost its influence. Having put a distance of four years between his Astrophel and Stella and the publication of his Defence of Poesie, Sidney authoritatively proclaimed in the latter work that poetry should celebrate God and Divine Love. Nashe attacks verse in which “lust is the tractate of so many leaves.” Physical love was no longer au courant. In his “A Coronet for his Mistress Philosophy,” Chapman reflects the new vogue of Neo-platonism by carefully identifying the differences between divine and physical love, also investigated meticulously by Spenser in his Fowre Hymnes (1596). Joshua Sylvester’s translations between 1590 and 1605 of the works of the French Huguenot poet Guillaume du Bartas helped to reinforce Protestant piety and further counteracted the Petrarchans. The most saintly poet of the period was Southwell, a Jesuit. In his preface to his Saint Peter’s Complaint, with Other Poems (1595), Southwell laments that the teachings of Christ go unheeded as poets would rather celebrate the glories of Venus. In Saint Peter’s Complaint, Peter excoriates himself for his denial of Christ, and the fact that the work is oddly adorned with sensuous conceits is an interesting indication that Petrarchan images managed to survive stubbornly, even in works inimical to their spirit. Finally, in 1599, Davies published his Nosce Teipsum: This Oracle Expounded in Two Elegies, whose theme was self-knowledge, rather than carnal knowledge of one’s mistress, as well as the proper relationship between the soul and the body.


Edmund Spenser

The tug of war between the sonneteers and the religious poets was only one of several noteworthy poetic developments near the close of the century. Edmund Spenser, the most talented poet of the century, contributed to both sides of the battle (the Amoretti and Fowre Hymnes), but his versatility as a poet enabled him to transcend any one category. Spenser’s early poetic career is not without its mysteries. No literary historian would have predicted that at a time when a new poetry was being refined by means of the sonnet form, someone would choose to revive the old medieval forms, but that is what Spenser did. The Shepheardes Calender is a throwback to the Mantuan eclogues, at this point almost a century old, and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe is reminiscent of Skelton’s anticlerical satires. His “Prosopopoia: Or, Mother Hubberd’s Tale” is an imitation of a medieval beast fable, and even The Faerie Queene, his most famous work, is essentially a compendium of medieval allegory and Italian epic forms derived from Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso. Furthermore, many of Spenser’s works were written in a deliberately archaic style.

Thus a major contribution to Spenser’s fame is not the originality of his themes but the range of his metrical and stanzaic experimentations. In a century characterized by poets self-consciously aware of themselves exercising their craft, Spenser was the apotheosis of the poetic craftsman. Though his archaic diction violated the tenets of many critics who believed that the vernacular must grow, Spenser’s experiments in versification furthered the cause of making English more vital. Despite its reactionary themes, The Shepheardes Calender explodes with experimentation in poetic forms. The “January” eclogue is written in the six-line ballad or “Venus and Adonis” stanza, “February” is written in Anglo-Saxon accentual verse, “March” is written in the romance stanza of Chaucer’s “Sir Topaz,” “July” is written in a rough, vulgar ballad meter, and “August” is a contrast of undisciplined folk rhythms and elegant sestinas. Though not Spenser’s most famous work, The Shepheardes Calender is nevertheless a remarkable symbol and culmination of the poetic self-consciousness of the sixteenth century and a fusion of the experiments in poetic versification that had helped to shape English as a suitable vehicle for poetry.

Verse Chronicles

As the century was drawing to a close, a popular genre flourishing outside the continuing battle between amatory and religious verse was the verse chronicle history. Of all the genres popular in the sixteenth century, the verse chronicle history is probably themost difficult for the modern reader to appreciate, probably because of its excruciating length; but more than any other genre, it serves as a repository for Elizabethan intellec-tual, historical, and social thought, especially as it reflects the Elizabethan desire for po-litical order, so amply documented by Tillyard in his Elizabethan World Picture: A Study of the Idea of Order in the Age of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton.

The first treatment of English history in poetry was the landmark publication of A Mirror for Magistrates (1555, 1559, 1563). It was a collection of tragedies of famous leaders in the medieval tradition of people brought low by the turning wheel of Fortuneand was written in rime royal, the favorite stanzaic vehicle of medieval narrative. The structure of its tragedies was imitated from John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes (1494), and the constant themes of the tragedies were both the subject’s responsibility to his king and the king’s responsibility to God; if either the ruler or the subject should fail in his proper allegiance, disorder and tragedy would inevitably ensue. A Mirror for Magistrates was extraordinarily popular with a reading public desiring both entertainment and instruction. It went through eight editions in thirty years, with Thomas Sackville’s “Induction” being considered at the time the best poem between Chaucer and Spenser.

The major importance of A Mirror for Magistrates is the fact that it fulfilled Sidney’s mandate in his Defence of Poesie that the poet take over the task of the historian, and A Mirror for Magistrates exerted a powerful influence on the late Elizabethan poets. Pride in the Royal Tudor lineage led not only the prose chroniclers but also the poets of the Elizabethan period to develop a strong sense of Britain’s history. Shakespeare’s history plays are widely recognized as reflections of England’s growing nationalistic fervor, and because of the magnitude of the plays, it is easy to overlook the contributions of the poets to English history, or, perhaps more accurately, pseudo-history. The troublesome murkiness of Britain’s origins were efficiently, if somewhat questionably, cleared up by exhaustive embellishments of the legends of Brut and King Arthur, legends that spurred England on to a sharpened sense of patriotism and nationalism. An obvious example is Spenser’s chronicle of early British history at the end of book 2 of The Faerie Queene. In 1586, William Warner published his Albion’s England, a long work ambitiously taking as its province all of historical time from Noah’s Flood down to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The following years saw the publication of Daniel’s The First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Warres (1595, 1599, 1601), whose books represented the apotheosis of all attempts at versified history. Like Shakespeare in his history plays, Daniel focused on a theme common in Elizabethan political theory, the evil that inevitably results from civil and moral disorder—specifically, the overthrow of Richard II. The modern reader has a natural antipathy toward the Elizabethan verse chronicles because of their length and because of the chroniclers’ penchant for moral allegorizing, for their tedious accounts of past civil disorder as illustrative of present moral chaos, and for their far-reaching, interweaving parallels among mythological, biblical, and British history (for example, the Titans’ defeat of Saturn being contrasted with the victory of Henry V at Agincourt in Heywood’s “Troia Britannica,” 1609). Nevertheless, these versified histories and their championing of moral order and nationalism constituted much of the most popular poetry of the Elizabethan period, and their impact cannot be overemphasized.

Growth and Transition

In retrospect, it is indeed astonishing to consider precisely how much the poetry of the sixteenth century grew after Hawes’s allegories first limped onto the scene in 1509. The pressing need for most poets at the beginning of the century was to imitate medieval forms as faithfully as possible. There was no question as to the superiority of the classical authorities, and there was no “English” poetry as such. In 1531, Sir Thomas Elyot mentions Ovid and Martial but not English poets, and, as late as 1553, Wilson was defending the rhetoric of the authorities Cicero and Quintilian. Gradually, however, by struggling with the new language and continuing to experiment with verse forms both new and original, poets were starting to shape a new English poetry and were achieving recognition as craftsmen in their own right. By 1586, Webbe respectfully addressed the preface to his Discourse of English Poetry to “the Noble Poets of England” and made mention of Skelton, Gascoigne, and Googe, finally recognizing Spenser as “the rightest English poet that ever I read.” Thus, by the end of the century the question of whether there could be an English poesy had been replaced by the question of what were the limits of the great English poets.

Because of the struggle to shape the new vernacular, the sixteenth century differs from other centuries in that many innovations were coming from the pens of not particularly gifted poets. Thus, working in a period of volatility and flux in the language, such men as Barclay and Skelton could exert an impact on the shaping of the poetry and earn their place in literary history. The first half of the sixteenth century did not witness the formation of new genres. The old reliables, dream-vision allegories, anticlerical satires, pastorals, ballads, versified psalms, and neomedieval tragedies, were the favorite vehicles of most poets. The extraordinary development of this period was the metrical experimentation, which never stopped, no matter how limited the poet. Perhaps more than any other period, therefore, the first half of the sixteenth century reveals as many noteworthy developments in its bad poets as in its talented ones.

After the publication of Tottel’s Miscellany, poetry began to settle down somewhat from its pattern of groping experimentation as it gained confidence and stability working with the vernacular. Perhaps the surest indication that poetry had hit its stride in England was the parody of the Petrarchan sonnet. The parody of the first truly great lyric form in England was a significant landmark because only widely popular forms tend to serve as targets for parody. A further indication of the vitality of the poetry was the fact that its poets survived the parody and went on to create new forms. Furthermore, poetic tastes were flexible enough to produce a Spenser who, while forging ahead with prosodic experimentation, looked backward to the archaisms that English poetry had originally used.

As the sixteenth century waned and old genres, such as the sonnet, the pastoral, and the verse chronicle, faded, there were numerous hints of what the poets of the new century would be attempting. In particular, there were several suggestions of the Metaphysicals. The decline in popularity of the Petrarchan sonnet and its subsequent ridicule paved the way for John Donne’s satires of the form in many of his secular lyrics. As was seen earlier, Greville’s religious themes in his Caelica were a precursor of devotional poetry. The sensuous conceits of Southwell heralded the Baroque extravagances of Richard Crashaw. The pastoral, a favorite Elizabethan genre, was fast fading, as indicated by Ralegh’s cynical response to Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” a plea for living a romantic life in pastoral bliss. In his “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” Ralegh makes it clear that such idyllic bliss does not exist. The pastoral was being replaced, however, by a less idealized, more rational mode, the theme of self-contained, rural retirement, as embodied at the close of the century in Sir Edward Dyer’s “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,” a theme that became increasingly popular in the new century. Finally, the proliferation of songs and airs, found in such collections as Nicholas Yonge’s Musica Transalpina (1588), John Dowland’s The First Book of Songs or Airs (1597), and Thomas Campion’s A Booke of Ayres (1601), created a vogue that influenced the lyrics of Ben Jonson and his followers.

The true worth of the poetry of the sixteenth century, however, lies not in the legacies that were inherited from it by the next century but rather in the sheer exuberance for the poetic undertaking that characterized the century from beginning to end. Because of the continuing process of shaping the new vernacular, the tools of the poetic craft are evident in every work, and in no other century did the poets better embody the original etymology of the word “poet,” which comes from the Greek word for “maker.” To use Webbe’s term, they “Englished” the old poetry and proved to be untiring “makers” of a new.

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Categories: ELIZABEHAN POETRY AND PROSE, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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