What are the characteristic features of English poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth century?

English poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth century contains a great deal of development, as well as some of the greatest individual geniuses in English literature. The first sonnets were written in English during this time, and many of the greatest poets, including Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, chose to express themselves using this distinctive form. Wit, irony, satire, and wordplay were also frequent, though not universal, attributes of poets during this period.

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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...

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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.

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Poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries typically falls into the Renaissance era, while a small portion of it began to blend into the Neoclassical period. For the most part, Renaissance poetry was the beginning of "vulgar" poetry (meaning not crude or crass but rather a departure from Latin), which took place predominately in the poet's native tongue.

Renaissance poetry is the epitome of flowery, effusive language, with writers like Shakespeare creating lasting works whose imagery is well-known even to this day. The Renaissance was the rebirth of art and literature, and so this was the first opportunity for many poets to explore the way that modern languages could be twisted and turned into beautiful phrasings and poetic lilts. Much of the work in this time was written in structured meters, like iambic pentameter, and the themes tended to focus on the depth human emotions and human nature.

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The Renaissance in English literature was at its peak in the latter decades of the sixteenth century. Its prominent poets include William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Thomas Wyatt. These poets borrowed, utilized, and modified the Italian sonnet form. An English sonnet is written in iambic pentameter with three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a concluding rhymed couplet (two-line stanza). The rhyme scheme was typically abab cdcd efef gg. The subject matter of sonnets was often love in its many manifestations, or courtly subjects in praise of the monarchy, or themes from the classical period involving mythological figures.

In the seventeenth century, English poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell took poetry's subject into the direction of metaphysics, with a sometimes droll outlook, and away from the sonnet form while retaining careful structures including regular meter and rhyme schemes and lyrical diction.

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This period, sometimes known as the "early modern" period, is one in which English poetry matured and flourished. Poets began using modern English, as opposed to Latin or the Middle English of Chaucer. Although some writers still experimented with the use of classical, quantitative meters, certainly by the end of the period, accentual-syllabic meter became the dominant prosodic mode. Iambic pentameter became a standard line in much the way that dactylic hexameter had been the default in antiquity. Poetry was metered; free verse had yet to be invented. Although English schools continued to emphasize Greek and Latin, not only did poetry in the vernacular flourish, but also writers such as Wilson, Sherry, and Peacham began to develop a uniquely English vocabulary for talking about poetry, rather than relying exclusively on Graeco-Latin critical terms.

Poetry in this period displayed great variety, including verse drama, epic, and lyric poetry, as well as translations and adaptations of poems from other languages. The sonnet flourished as one of the most important types of lyric poetry. While many poets wrote about love in the Petrarchan tradition, religious poetry also thrived.

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During the 15th and 16th century, the English poetry was either a part of the The Renaissance Period (1500-1660) or the Neoclassical Period (1660-1798). That being said, many critics have a hard time agreeing upon the exact dates of some of the literary periods and dates one sees may contradict with one another.

Poetry of the Renaissance period tended to contain elements truer to the poet than those which had been seen earlier in poetry. The Renaissance poets tended to raise up the importance of their own native vernacular (pulling away from the classical Latin). These poets also tended to focus upon ironic and satirical situations found in life. The most famous Renaissance poets of this period were Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.

As for the characteristics of the Neoclassical period, the poets of this period tended to pull away from the ideas illustrated by the authors of the Renaissance Period. Therefore, they wrote poems which spoke to the importance of order, correctness, and restraint. Their poetry focused upon re-establishing the importance of the classical forms of poetry (the most commonly used in this period was the rhymed couplet). The most famous poets of this period were Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and John Milton.

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