Please provide the characteristics of Elizabethan poetry.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Elizabethan poetry flowered through the introduction of blank verse by the Earl of Surrey, experimental poetry like Spenser's The Shephearde’s Calendar, lyric poetry like that of Sir Philip Sidney, pastorals and allegorical poems such as The Faerie Queene by Spenser, and dramas in poem, both tragedies and comedies like those of Shakespeare. An often thought of flowering of poetry in Elizabethan England is the sonnet introduced from Italy by Thomas Wyatt.

In England, the sonnet form was known not just as the Elizabethan sonnet, but also as the Shakespearean sonnet in that William Shakespeare popularized sonnets during the Elizabethan period. However, this poetic form did not originate in England. The sonnet was introduced during the Italian Renaissance (approximately 1300-1600). The man credited for making it so famous is Francesco Petrarch; and so the first sonnet form was called Petrarchan. It would ultimately be introduced into Elizabethan literary circles during the Elizabethan Renaissance (approximately 1485-1603) by Sir Thomas Wyatt (in the late sixteenth century).

[Petrarch] was the foremost writer of sonnets in Italian, and translations of his work into English by Thomas Wyatt established the sonnet form in that country, where it was employed by William Shakespeare and countless other poets.

While the Italian sonnet is stylistically different, a great deal of the construction was synthesized into the Elizabethan sonnet. For instance, Shakespeare (and other English poets) adopted Petrarch's use of fourteen lines total.

Another characteristic is that sections are used. However, unlike Petrarch's sections of eight and six lines (respectively), the first twelve lines of the Elizabethan sonnet consist of three quatrains: a quatrain is a four-line stanza. The last two lines are a rhyming couplet—in other words, the last two lines (or the "couple") rhymed with each other at the last word of each line. For example, Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 ends with these two lines:

For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings. (13-14)

Note that "brings" and "kings" rhyme.

These sections are also used to organize the theme of the poem. Referring to Sonnet 29 once more, the first quatrain (or first four lines) finds the speaker complaining about his bad luck—even heaven fails to listen to his cries. The second stanza continues with specific examples: he isn't as handsome as other men, and does not have as many friends either. However, by the third quatrain, the tone of the poem shifts dramatically. He thinks about the woman who loves him and he becomes ecstatic—his heart soars. The rhyming couplet serves to bring a conclusion to the poem. In this case, having such a love, the speaker notes that he would not change places even with a king.

The next characteristic is the rhyming pattern. The Elizabethan sonnet is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line consists of five measures, or feet, of an unstressed followed by a stressed word or syllable, as can be heard when the poem is read aloud. In addition, the poem has the specific rhyme scheme or pattern of rhyme. The rhyme in the Elizabethan sonnet is:

abab cdcd efef gg

This shows that the first and third lines rhyme with each other. The second and fourth lines rhyme, and so forth. The last two lines, as noted before, rhyme with each other.

It should be noted that sonnets are often (but not always) poems about love, the passage of time, beauty, and/or nature.

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