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 inadequate treatments of the sixteenth century in the classroom. Perhaps reinforced by the simplicity of his dichotomy, teachers have traditionally depicted the fruits of the century as not blossoming until the 1580’s, with the sonneteers finally possessing the talent and good sense to perfect the experiments with the Petrarchan sonnet form first begun by Sir Thomas Wyatt early in the century. Students have been inevitably taught that between Wyatt and Sidney stretched a wasteland of mediocre poetry, disappointing primarily because so many poets failed to apply their talents to continuing the Petrarchan experiments begun by Wyatt. Thus, indoctrinated in the axiom that, as concerns the sixteenth century, “good” poetry is Petrarchan and “bad” poetry is that which fails to work with Petrarchan conceits, teachers deal in the classroom mostly with the poets of the 1580’s and later, ignoring the other poetic currents of the early and mid-century. It has been difficult indeed to overcome Lewis’s dichotomy of “drab” and “Golden.”
Fortunately, there have been studies of sixteenth century poetry that are sensitive to non-Petrarchan efforts, and these studies deserve recognition as providing a better perspective for viewing the sixteenth century. In 1939, Yvor Winters’s essay “The Sixteenth Century Lyric in England: A Critical and Historical Reinterpretation” focused on some of the less notable poets of the period, such as Barnabe Googe, George Turberville, and Gascoigne, who, until Winters’s essay, had been dismissed simply because they were not Petrarchan in sentiment, and the essay also helped to dispel the notion that the aphoristic, proverbial content of their poetry was symptomatic of their simple-mindedness and lack of talent. By pointing out how their sparse style contributes to, rather than detracts from, the moral content of their poetry, Winters’s essay is instrumental in helping the reader develop a sense of appreciation for these often overlooked poets. In addition to Winters’s essay, Douglas L. Peterson’s book The English Lyric from Wyatt to Donne: A History of the Plain and Eloquent Styles (1967), taking up where Winters left off, identified two major poetic currents in the sixteenth century: the plain style and the eloquent style. Peterson provided a...
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