English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century Analysis


ph_0111305258-Shakespeare.jpg William Shakespeare performing before Queen Elizabeth and her court. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The poetry of the sixteenth century defies facile generalizations. Although the same can obviously be said for the poetry of other periods as well, this elusiveness of categorization is particularly characteristic of the sixteenth century. It is difficult to pinpoint a century encompassing both the growling meter of John Skelton and the polished prosody of Sir Philip Sidney, and consequently, past efforts to provide overviews of the period have proven unhelpful. Most notably, C. S. Lewis in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (1954) contrived an unfortunate division between what he called “drab” poetry and “Golden” poetry. What he means by this distinction is never entirely clear, and Lewis himself further confuses the dichotomy by occasionally suggesting that his own term “drab” need not have a pejorative connotation, although when he applies it to specific poets, it is clear that he intends it to be damaging. Furthermore, his distinction leads him into oversimplifications. As Lewis would have it, George Gascoigne is mostly drab (a condition that he sees as befitting a poet of the “drab” mid-century) though blessed with occasional “Golden” tendencies, while Robert Southwell, squarely placed in the “Golden” period, is really a mediocre throwback to earlier “drab” poetry. Such distinctions are hazy and not helpful to the reader, who suspects that Lewis defines “drab” and “Golden” simply as what he himself dislikes or prefers in poetry.

The muddle created by Lewis’s terminology has led to...

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Poetry as craft

ph_0111201586-Spenser.jpg Edmund Spenser Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Despite the difficulties inherent in summarizing a century as diverse as the sixteenth, it is possible to discern a unifying thread running through the poetry of the period. The unity stems from the fact that, perhaps more than any other time, the sixteenth century was consistently “poetic”; that is, the poets were constantly aware of themselves as poetic craftsmen. From Skelton to Edmund Spenser, poets were self-conscious of their pursuits, regardless of theme. This poetic self-consciousness was manifested primarily in the dazzling display of metrical, stanzaic, and prosodic experimentation that characterized the efforts of all the poets, from the most talented to the most mediocre. In particular, the century experienced the development of, or refinement upon, for example, the poulter’s measure (alternate twelve-and fourteen-syllable lines), blank verse, heroic couplets, rime royal, ottava rima, terza rima, Spenserian stanza, douzains, fourteeners—all appearing in a variety of genres. Characteristic of the century was the poet watching himself be a poet, and every poet of the century would have found himself in agreement with Sidney’s assessment of the poet in his Defence of Poesie (1595) as prophet or seer, whose craft is suffused with divine inspiration.

Social context

This process of conscious invention and self-monitoring is one key to understanding the poetry of the sixteenth century. It is a curious fact that whereas in other periods, historical and social factors play a large role in shaping poetic themes, in the sixteenth century, such extraliterary influences did little to dictate the nature of the poetry. Surprisingly, even though Copernicus’s theory of a heliocentric universe was known by mid-century, the poetry barely nodded to the New Science or to the new geographical discoveries. Certainly, the century experienced almost constant political and religious turbulence, providing abundant fare for topical themes; a less apolitical period one can hardly imagine. It was the prose, however, more than the poetry, that sought to record the buffetings created by the fact that the official religion in England changed four times between 1530 and 1560.

It seems that the instability created by this uneasiness had the effect of turning the poets inward, rather than outward to political, social, and religious commentary (with the exceptions of the broadside ballads, pseudojournalistic poems intended for the uncultivated, and the verse chronicle history so popular at the close of the century), bearing out the hypothesis that good satire can flourish only in periods of relative stability. For example, despite the number of obvious targets, the genre of political satire did not flourish in the sixteenth century, and its sporadic representatives, in particular anticlerical satire, a warhorse left over from the Middle Ages, are barely noteworthy. A major figure in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) is Gloriana, a figure depicting Queen Elizabeth, but she is an idealized rendering, only one of many such celebrations in poetry of Queen Elizabeth, not intended to provide a realistic insight into her character.

Rise of vernacular languages

Thus, to the poet of the sixteenth century, the primary consideration of the poetic pursuit was not who or what to write about, but rather how to write. The reason for this emphasis on style over content is simple enough to isolate. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the English language was experiencing severe growing pains. In fact, throughout Europe the vernacular was struggling to overthrow the tyranny of Latin and to discover its essential identity. Nationalism was a phenomenon taking root everywhere, and inevitably, the cultivation of native languages was seen as the logical instrument of expediting the development of national identity. Italy and France were undergoing revolts against Latin, and Joachim du Bellay’s La Défense et illustration de la langue française (1549; The Defence and Illustration of the French Language, 1939) proclaimed explicitly that great works can be written in the vernacular. In England, the invention of new words was encouraged, and war was waged on “inkhornisms,” terms of affectation usually held over from the old Latin or French, used liberally by Skelton. Thus, George Puttenham, an influential critical theorist of the period, discusses the question of whether a poet would be better advised to use “pierce” rather than “penetrate,” and Richard Mulcaster, Spenser’s old headmaster, was moved to announce, “I honor the Latin, but I worship English.”

It was no easy task, however, to...

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The zeal for metrical experimentation that characterized the sixteenth century is manifested not only in the original poetry of the period but also in the numerous translations that were being turned out. The primary purpose of the translations was to record the works of the venerable authorities in the new vernacular, and it is significant that Webbe refers to these works not as being “translated” but as being “Englished.” Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) was a favorite target for the translators, with Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, publishing a translation in 1553, Thomas Phaer in 1558, and Richard Stanyhurst in 1582. Stanyhurst translated only the first four books, and he achieved a metrical monstrosity by attempting to translate Vergil in English hexameters, reflecting the tensions of cramming old subject matter into new forms. Ovid was another favorite of the translators. Arthur Golding translated the Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) in 1567, and also in that year, Turberville translated the Heroides (before 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), featuring elaborate experiments with the poulter’s measure, fourteeners, and blank verse. Most of the translations of the period may be dismissed as the works of versifiers, not poets (with the exception of George Chapman’s Homer, which has the power of an original poem), but they are valuable reflections of the constant metrical experimentations taking place and, subsequently, of the ongoing process of shaping the new vernacular.

Literary theory

An overview of the poetry of the 1500’s would be incomplete without an introduction to the critical theory of the period and the ways in which it recorded the successes and failures of the new vernacular experimentations. Not surprisingly, critical theory of the age was abundant. An obvious representative is Sidney’s Defence of Poesie. The elegance and polish of this argument for the superiority of poetry over any other aesthetic pursuit has made it the most outstanding example of Renaissance critical theory. The easy grace of the work, however, tends to obscure the fact that the new experiments in prosody had created a lively, often nasty debate in critical theory between the guardians of the old and the spokespersons...

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Allegories and dream visions

The opening of the sixteenth century, however, was anything but a harbinger of new developments to come. Like most centuries, the sixteenth began on a conservative, even reactionary note, looking backward to medieval literature, rather than forward to the new century. Allegories and dream visions written in seven-line stanzas, favorite vehicles of the medieval poets, dominated the opening years of the sixteenth century. Under Henry VII the best poets were Scottish—William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, and Sir David Lyndsay—and they were devoted imitators of Geoffrey Chaucer. The first English poet to assert himself in the new century was Stephen Hawes, who published The Pastime of Pleasure in 1509 which represented uninspired...

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Continental influences

Despite his original metrical experimentation, Skelton was still entrenched in inkhornisms and looked backward for his themes. Paradoxically, as is often the case, it can be the poet with the least talent who nevertheless injects into his poetry vague hints of things to come. Alexander Barclay wrote no poetry of the slightest worth, but embedded in the mediocrity lay the beginnings of a new respect for the vernacular. To the literary historian, Barclay is of interest for two reasons. First, he was the sixteenth century’s first borrower from the Continent. Specifically, in his Certayn Egloges (1570), he was the first to imitate the eclogues of Mantuan, which were first printed in 1498 and which revolutionized the genre of...

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Plain style

Thus, far from attempting to initiate a new “movement” of Petrarchan eloquence, many of the poems in Tottel’s Miscellany sought to refine the possibilities of the plain style. As Peterson defines it, the plain style is characterized by plain, proverbial, aphoristic sentiments. It is a style often unappreciated by modern readers because its obvious simplicity is often mistaken for simplemindedness. The practitioners of the plain style, however, were very skilled in tailoring their verse to fit the needs of the poem’s message, the pursuit of simplicity becoming a challenge, not a symptom of flagging inspiration. Skelton unwittingly summarizes the philosophy of the plain style when, commenting on his rhyme in...

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Further anthologies

The three decades following the publication of Tottel’s Miscellany have been stereotyped as a wasteland when poetry languished desultorily until the advent of the sonneteers in the 1580’s. Nothing could be more unfair to the poetry of the period than to view it as struggling in an inspirational darkness. Amazingly, such a stereotype manages to overlook the profusion of poetry collections that Tottel’s Miscellany spawned. Though admittedly the poetry of some of these collections is forgettable, nevertheless the continual appearance of these collections for the next fifty years is an impressive indication of the extent to which Tottel’s philosophy of prosodic experimentation continued to exert an influence....

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Elizabethan poetry

Thus, the poetry of the latter part of the century, the great age of the eloquent style, must not be viewed as a semimiraculous phoenix, rising from the ashes between Wyatt’s experiments with Petrarch and the advent of Sidney. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the Elizabethan era ranks as one of the outstanding poetic periods of any century, its development of the eloquent style ranking as an outstanding achievement. A valuable representative of what the eloquent style was trying to accomplish is Sir John Davies’ Orchestra: Or, A Poeme of Dauncing (1596, 1622). In his Elizabethan World Picture (1943), E. M. W. Tillyard analyzes the poem at length as a fitting symbol of the Elizabethans’ obsession with...

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Petrarchan and “eloquent” style

When one thinks of sixteenth century poetry and the eloquent style, however, one almost immediately thinks of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence, and one explanation for the almost fanatic renewal of interest in Petrarch was the inevitable shift of interests in poetic style. The plain style, so dominant for almost half a century, was beginning to play itself out, a primary indication being the decline in use of the epigram, whose pithy wit held little appeal for Elizabethan poets. The more skillful among them were anxious to perfect a new style, specifically the “eloquent” style, almost the total antithesis of the plain style. Not particularly concerned with expressing universal truths, the eloquent style, as practiced by Davies,...

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Sonnets and sonnet sequences

The sonnet sequence, a collection of sonnets recording the lover’s successes and failures in courting his frequently unsympathetic mistress, was practiced by the brilliant and mediocre alike. Of course, the two most outstanding poets of the century pioneered the form—Sidney in his Astrophel and Stella, who in the true spirit of the poetic self-consciousness of the century wrote sonnets about the writing of sonnets and wrote some sonnets entirely in Alexandrines, and Spenser in his Amoretti (1595), who, in addition to introducing refinements in the sonnet structure, also intellectualized the cult of the rejected lover by analyzing the causes of rejection.

In the next twenty years the contributions...

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Mythological-erotic narrative

As the sonnet declined, however, another form of amatory verse was being developed: the mythological-erotic narrative. This form chose erotic themes from mythology, embellishing the narrative with sensuous conceits and quasipornographic descriptions. It was a difficult form to master because it required titillation without descending into vulgarity and light touches of sophisticated humor without descending into burlesque. Successful examples of the mythological-erotic narrative are Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598; completed by Chapman), Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593), Chapman’s Ovid’s Banquet of Sense (1595), Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe (1595), and Lodge’s...

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Satiric and religious verse

As the mythological narrative and the sonnet declined, both social satire and religious verse experienced a corresponding upswing. The steady growth of a middle-class reading audience precipitated an increased interest in satire, a genre which had not been represented with any distinction since Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas, a Satyre (1576). Understandably, though inaccurately, Joseph Hall labeled himself the first English satirist. Juvenalian satire flourished in his Virgidemiarum (1597), similar to Davies’ Gulling Sonnets, followed by Everard Guilpin’s Skialetheia: Or, Shadow of Truth in Certain Epigrams and Satyres (1598), which attacks the “wimpring sonnets” and “puling Elegies”...

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Bell, Ilona. Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship. Illustrated edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Argues that women’s voices can be heard not only in poems by women writers but also in the implied responses by women to poetry addressed to them. The book bears evidence of extensive research, combined with judicious analysis of the poems mentioned.

Blevins, Jacob. Catullan Consciousness and the Early Modern Lyric in England: From Wyatt to Donne. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2004. The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that like Catullus, some English poets departed from convention and used the...

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Verse chronicles

As the century was drawing to a close, a popular genre flourishing outside the continuing battle between amatory and religious verse was the verse chronicle history. Of all the genres popular in the sixteenth century, the verse chronicle history is probably the most difficult for the modern reader to appreciate, probably because of its excruciating length; but more than any other genre, it serves as a repository for Elizabethan intellectual, historical, and social thought, especially as it reflects the Elizabethan desire for political order, so amply documented by Tillyard in his Elizabethan World Picture.

The first treatment of English history in poetry was the landmark publication of A Mirror for...

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Growth and transition

In retrospect, it is indeed astonishing to consider precisely how much the poetry of the sixteenth century grew after Hawes’s allegories first limped onto the scene in 1509. The pressing need for most poets at the beginning of the century was to imitate medieval forms as faithfully as possible. There was no question as to the superiority of the classical authorities, and there was no “English” poetry as such. In 1531, Sir Thomas Elyot mentions Ovid and Martial but not English poets, and, as late as 1553, Wilson was defending the rhetoric of the authorities Cicero and Quintilian. Gradually, however, by struggling with the new language and continuing to experiment with verse forms both new and original, poets were starting to...

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