English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century Introduction


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)
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...

(The entire section is 645 words.)