A period of two hundred years in the literature of any country is likely to contain a great deal of development, and the period that includes both John Skelton and John Milton, by way of Sir Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, John Donne, and George Herbert, is particularly difficult to describe...
A period of two hundred years in the literature of any country is likely to contain a great deal of development, and the period that includes both John Skelton and John Milton, by way of Sir Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, John Donne, and George Herbert, is particularly difficult to describe with generalizations. This was the period in which Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English verse, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, modified it into the characteristic English form adopted by Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare for their celebrated sonnet sequences.
Given the importance of the sonnet during this period, one might use it to trace the development of the characteristic features of sixteenth and seventeenth-century poetry more generally. The themes of painful, unrequited love and immortal fame paired with wit and wordplay are particularly characteristic of the early and Elizabethan sonneteers. Their seventeenth-century successors, particularly Donne, retained the wit but added a sinewy quality, both verbally and intellectually, along with their religious concerns and elaborate comparisons between the sacred and the profane.
This type of argument in verse continues with the work of Milton, whose sonnets display in miniature the long, rolling, thunderous phrases of Paradise Lost. Although Milton overshadows all other poets of the mid-seventeenth century, the tradition of metaphysical wit continues with Andrew Marvell and changes into something more scurrilous and controversial with the Earl of Rochester and his fellow Restoration poets. Although Rochester’s polished satire is stylistically some distance from Skelton’s rough macaronics at the beginning of the sixteenth century, they are often similar in content. Such wit and irony remain a feature throughout the period, though Milton’s moral seriousness is a weighty exception.