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What are some features of Elizabethan poetry?

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Thanh Munoz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the Elizabethan period (from the start of Elizabeth I's reign in 1558 until her death in 1603) we find a wide diversity of English poets, each with his own individualistic personality and literary style. It would be best, in answering your question, for us to single out several of these writers, note the chief characteristics of their work, and draw conclusions as to common threads or themes among them that exist despite each one's singularity.

Edmund Spenser (1552–1599). Spenser is known principally for his great epic The Fairie Queene, for his love sonnets, and for pastoral poems such as The Shephearde's Calender and his elegy Astrophel on his fellow poet Philip Sidney. In all of these works Spenser used beautifully stylized and musical language to evoke a quasi-mythic past and to recreate the courtly atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Much of the wording he uses was already archaic in his own time, and this serves to emphasize the gentle, almost nostalgic quality of his verse in depicting an idealized England, while using the past allegorically to celebrate his own sovereign Queen Elizabeth.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616). As probably the greatest of all English poets and the greatest world dramatist of modern (i.e., since the year 1500) times, Shakespeare does not need much description from us. His best-known verse apart from the plays is, of course, the sonnets, which are basically love poetry but written in a more down-to-earth and "realistic" tone than the sonnets of Spenser. The sonnet was originally an Italian verse form, so Spenser, Shakespeare, and other English poets were basing their work on Italian models to a large degree, just as Shakespeare drew on Italian sources for many of his plays. Inspiration from Italy was a major feature of the Elizabethan age.

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). Like Shakespeare, Marlowe was mainly a dramatist, although his life was cut short before he could fulfill the enormous promise of his talent. His most famous work apart from the plays is probably the pastoral poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love." Marlowe's language in some heightened spots could be considered as beautiful as Shakespeare's in his passages celebrating love, such as the lines beginning "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" from Doctor Faustus.

Philip Sidney (1554-1586). A soldier and prominent courtier as well as a poet, Sidney died young, in this case on the battlefield fighting on the side of the Protestants in the Netherlands against the Spanish. Sidney wrote love sonnets and the long pastoral poem Astrophel and Stella (hence Spenser's poem Astrophel, which is about Sidney himself after his death). He also wrote a long critical essay about the aesthetics of literature, A Defence of Poetry.

Among all of the above the common threads can be seen as: 1) the emphasis on love, 2) the use of Italian models such as the sonnet and sources such as the Italian romance, 3) the popularity of pastoral verse, dealing with a world of shepherds and shepherdesses, and 4) depictions of a courtly, legendary past (as in Spenser), often in an either allegorical or nationalistically idealized format where Queen Elizabeth, the rise of the Tudor family (as in Shakespeare's Richard III) or the greatness of the English in general are celebrated. In this last point we can also sense a growing awareness of the importance of England as a world power and the English as a people who are beginning to create significant literature that can equal the poetry of the Romance-language nations and of antiquity.

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Elizabethan poetry included lyric, dramatic, and epic poems. The best known dramatic poet was William Shakespeare, but there were many other outstanding Elizabethan dramatists including Kyd and Marlowe. A genre of verse drama that flourished in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods was the court masque that usually included many songs.

Elizabethan lyric poetry was strongly influenced by that of Italian poetry. One especially influential poet was Petrarch whose sonnets inspired many Elizabethan imitations, and also led to the development of the English sonnet. Sydney and Shakespeare were among the Elizabethan poets who wrote sonnets.

Romantic and pastoral themes, especially treating of courtly love, were common in the period, as was religious poetry, Many lyric poems were set to music.

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