What impact did the so-called "Renaissance" have on English poetry of that period?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The word "Renaissance" -- closely related to a very similar Italian word of the period -- suggests the idea of "rebirth." The term refers to a rebirth of interest in Greek and Roman culture, especially classical literature. Interest in the classical past had never by any means died out during the so-called "middle ages," but such interest became especially intense during the Renaissance.  The Renaissance began in Italy and is often associated with the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (or "Petrarch," in English). Petrarch's sonnet sequence known as the Rime sparse ("Scattered Rhymes") was especially influential on subsequent Renaissance literature in many European countries. By the early 1500s, the impact of the Renaissance in general, and of Petrarch in particular, was beginning to be felt in England.

The main project of the "Renaissance" was to try to determine how the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans were relevant to contemporary Christians. The rationale behind this quest was simple: since Christianity was the Truth with a capital T, anything discovered in the classical past that was true was, by definition, compatible with Christianity. Renaissance Christians felt enormous respect for the so-called "virtuous pagans," such as Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca,who had used reason alone to discover so much truth. Reason was a gift from God, and the virtuous pagans had used it wisely and well. Even though they did not have access to the full Truth (contained in the Bible), they had nevertheless discovered much truth simply by using the reason God gives to all human beings.

This admiration for the "virtuous pagans" can be seen, for example, in Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem "Farewell, Love." Wyatt is usually considered one of the very first, and most influential, of the English Renaissance poets.  In "Farewell, Love," the speaker turns his back on Cupid, since Cupid is the symbol of selfish desire (as opposed to true spiritual love). The speaker announces that Cupid's

. . . baited hooks shall tangle me no more;

Senec and Plato call me from thy lore,

To perfect wealth my wit for to endeavor. (2-4)

These lines are utterly typical of Renaissance poetry. Cupid (i.e., selfish desire) tries to entice us with his deceptive, baited hooks of temptation, as if we were as lacking in reason as fish are. However, virtuous pagans, such as the Roman philosopher Seneca and the Greek philosopher Plato, can help call us away from Cupid's "lore" (his teachings) and his "lure" (the bait on his hook). In other words, the virtuous pagan philosophers can help teach us to achieve "perfect" moral and intellectual "wealth" by teaching us to endeavor to employ our "wit" (or reason) properly. This poem is just one of many pieces of English Renaissance literature that makes essentially the same point: that Renaissance Christians should strive to be at least as virtuous as the "virtuous pagans" were.

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