Renaissance Literature

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What are the key features of early English Renaissance poetry?

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Poetry of the early English Renaissance – that is, poetry dating from roughly the first half of the sixteenth century – was characterized by a number of different formal, stylistic, and technical features. Such features, for instance, included the following:

  • a strong emphasis on generic distinctions. In other words, poets of this period didn’t just sit down and write “poems”; instead, they wrote different specific kinds of poems, and they were very concerned with following (or departing from) the rules associated with these different “kinds” (or “genres”) of poems. Genres that were especially important during this period included the complaint, the epigram, the epistle, the epitaph, the lyric, the ode, satire, the song, and especially the sonnet. Typically, a poet would choose a particular kind of poem to write, would familiarize himself (or already be familiar) with the requirements of that genre, and then would try to meet those requirements in his own poem. The more inventive poets would often depart, in interesting ways, from what had already been done in the past.
  • thanks to the influence of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, so-called “Petrarchan poetry” was very popular.  This was especially true among writers of sonnets, who often followed Petrarchan models very closely (often, in fact, by imitating Petrarchan originals).  Thus Petrarchan sonnets almost always consisted of an opening eight-line section (the octave) and a closing six-line section (the sestet). Petrarchan sonnets were almost universally 14 lines long, and the rhyme schemes of the octaves were almost invariably abbaabba.  The rhyme schemes of the sestets could vary, although usually three new rhymes were introduced in patterns like the following: cdecde. The two great popularizers of the Petrarchan sonnet in England were Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Many of their poems are essentially translations from Petrarch.
  • Blank verse (unrhymed lines of poetry with ten syllables in each line and with each even syllable stressed) became especially influential after this kind of writing was used by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in his translation of part of the Roman poet Virgil’s The Aeneid.
  • So-called “fourteeners” were used by some poets. These were lines consisting of fourteen syllables with a pause after the first eight syllables. Arthur Golding used this kind of meter in his translation of the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. Thus he mentions

Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hills, of Brookes, of Woods alone,

Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.

  • Early sixteenth-century English poets tended to be concerned with such formal features as decorum (making sure, for instance, that characters spoke in ways appropriate to their circumstances in life); elocution (the proper use of figures of speech); epideictic rhetoric (using poetry to praise and to blame – usually praising virtue and condemning vice); and pastoral (a focus on the lives of shepherds, which were often treated allegorically).

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