Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, are generally considered the inaugurators of the golden age of English poetry in the reign of Elizabeth I. Both men were educated in the humanistic tradition, and they early became familiar with the polished lyric poetry of the Italians and the French. They attempted to demonstrate in their own works that English, too, was a language flexible and elegant enough for court poetry. Skillful experimenters with metrics, they imitated a number of the verse forms popular on the Continent, including the sonnet, ottava rima, terza rima, and the rondeau. Many of the lyrics of both poets are based upon the Petrarchan conventions of the cruel, scornful lady and her forlorn, rejected lover; a number of the sonnets are, in fact, either translations or close adaptations of Petrarch’s works.
While Wyatt and Surrey are most often mentioned as precursors of Elizabethan poetry, students of their works have pointed out that their poetry is, in fact, quite different from that of Sidney, Spenser, and their followers. Typical “golden” poetry makes its effect through rich language and imagery, while in the work of Wyatt and Surrey there is a directness, a simplicity, and an awareness of the natural world that seems closer to Chaucer and his contemporaries than to the Renaissance poets. They form, in a sense, a bridge between the medieval world and the Elizabethan Age.
Surrey was for generations considered the...
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