Robert Greene

Start Free Trial

Robert Greene Poetry: British Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

To understand Robert Greene as a poet requires distinguishing among the three main categories of his verse: the ninety poems incidental to his romances, his memorial poem about Sir Christopher Hatton (A Maiden’s Dream), and his verse comedies. The first illustrates the use of verse in the service of characterization in prose narrative; the third shows varied verse structure as the vehicle of character and mood. The second is Greene’s only self-contained work in a conventional verse genre.

Poems incidental to the romances

The reader of Greene’s incidental poems is doubly struck: first, by Greene’s concentration on a single theme, the workings of romantic love; second, by the sheer diversity of Greene’s forms, voices, and conceits. Whereas Sir Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, and the other Elizabethan sonnet-cyclists explored the potential of a single form and voice to express the nuances of love, Greene’s personas vary with his many character types, male and female, who “spoke” or “sang” poems of from four to eighty lines, in blank verse, ballads, quatrains, couplets, rime royal, and Petrarchan sonnet rhyme. Although rarely straying from English iambics, Greene did experiment with feminine endings and quantitative verse. His lines are predominantly pentameter, but his many songs frequently call for use of tetrameter and the alternation of line lengths. He even composed several hexameters.

Despite his numerous ventures into different meters and lengths, Greene favored the six-linestanza (ababcc, abbacc, or abcbdd), the tetrameter couplet (particularly in his pastoral songs from 1588 onward), and the ballad. These forms, combined with his almost exclusive use of end-stopped lines, make it clear that Greene intended his verse to be sung—at least to be songlike. His usual introduction to a poem is typified by the following from Greene’s Never Too Late: “. . . whereupon sitting downe, she [Isabella] tooke her Lute in her hand, and sung this Ode.” In these introductions, Greene frequently calls his poems “ditties,” “dumpes” (sad songs), “madrigals,” and “roundelays,” to emphasize their tunefulness. When he calls his poems “odes” or “sonnets,” he does not use such terms to signify specific verse forms. “Ode” implied to Greene’s readers a serious, measured expression of emotion; “sonnet” merely meant “song.” The “ode” sung by Isabella is classical only in its mythological imagery; it is written in rhymed tetrameter couplets. Greene’s sonnets range in length from twelve to more than thirty lines and are almost all balladlike, some with refrains.

Whether Greene actually intended his poems to be set to music is not known. Since most of his pieces are “written through” (without refrains) and contain a fairly complex image structure, it seems more likely that he meant them to remain on the page, to be considered at a more leisurely pace than music allows. A clear case in point is “Melicertus’ Eclogue” from Menaphon. Influenced by Edmund Spenser, Sidney, and other contributors to the pastoral tradition, Greene here uses a song form to work out a complicated conceit that does not lend itself to singing. In the poem, Melicertus, a nobleman disguised as a shepherd, describes the beauties of his love, Samela. As Melicertus proceeds to show how the various features of his mistress were created to satisfy particular fancies of the gods, the poem proceeds in ballad form; but the number of images in even one line, “And mounts to heauen on ouer leaden wings,” demands a reader’s slower pace, enabling one to review a stanza to gather missed ideas.

Sometimes, however, a Greene poem is fully suited to musical setting. One of these is “Sephestia’s Song to Her Child”;...

(This entire section contains 2262 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

the strong pauses in each line mark this “dittie” as intended for the voice and the lute. Like Thomas Campion’s airs, it moves the reader by invoking a familiar mood through a few definite images within a simple narrative.

In terms of imagery, most of Greene’s songlike poetry from his early romances (1583-1588) displays a self-conscious classicism, conforming to his early use of such settings as Olympus, Ithaca, and Troy, and his explicit following of such learned models as John Lyly and Baldassare Castiglione. From 1588 on, most of Greene’s verse comes closer to what might be called the English folk spirit, as exemplified in Sephestia’s lullaby. Greene’s imagery in these poems tends to spring from the same native source as his rhythms and stanza forms. Ironically, this shift is first seen in a romance titled Ciceronis Amor, a work outwardly classical in setting and character, since it deals with the courtship of Cicero and the patrician lady Terentia. This romance even includes a Vergilian pastoral setting, the “vale of Love”; nevertheless, the genius of this vale is distinctly English, almost Chaucerian.

Romantic love

Thematically, most of Greene’s poems, like the romances in which they are contained, are about the workings of love, usually painful, in young men and women. As expressions of his characters’ emotional states, the poems can be compared to soliloquies or set speeches in drama. What each poem says about love depends on the character’s personality, station in life, and situation at the moment. Thus, the title character of Menaphon, a shepherd in love with a princess, joyfully proclaims his love in one poem and woefully exclaims on his rejection in another; his fellow shepherd, Doron, also sings about the lady, but his description is platonic, since he admires Samela, but does not dote on her affection. Greene creates love poems to fit an amazing array of character types: prostitutes, icy virgins, betrayed wives, arrogant princes, love-scarred travelers, love-starved rustics, and many others. Philomela’s ode reveals the mind of the chaste wife of a jealous husband; in a completely different spirit is the song of Infida, the whore who inveigles the hero of Greene’s Never Too Late: “Thine eyes like flames of holie fires,/ N’oseres vous, mon bel amy, Burnes all my thoughts with sweete desires.”

Because most Greene romances lead to a main character’s remorse for wrongs done in the name of love, many of his poems dwell on either the overwhelming power of the emotion or the horrors of infatuation. Greene frequently handles this allegorically, in narratives about Cupid, Venus, and other mythological figures, as in “Radagon in Dianem,” from Francesco’s Fortunes. At other times, he comes at the issue directly, as in Philomela’s ode, or in Francesco’s sonnet on his infidelity. The two approaches differ with the characters’ differing moods and motives: where the unscrupulous Radagon wants to seduce the innocent Mirimida by impressing her with his inventive wit, Francesco, ravaged by such schemes, creates verse that exhibits his newly found peace of mind. The second poem, while less showy, presents a more fully elaborated image, that of the prison, within a form that demands more control than does that chosen by Radagon. These two poems typify the marriage of form and dramatic function that Greene achieves in his best incidental poetry.

Dramatic verse

Even casual scrutiny of Greene’s work suggests a connection between his stage writing, which began in 1588, and the change in his poetic style that took place the same year. Certainly, his many poetic experiments in the romances before 1588 had made Greene a fluent versifier before he began writing for the stage. His first known play, Orlando Furioso, of which only a partial text remains, shows Greene’s ease in spinning long iambic sentences dense with mythology. Conversely, the more personal, vividly descriptive poetry in Greene’s Never Too Late and Francesco’s Fortunes owes something to the fast-paced, richly sensual dialogue of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and James IV.

Greene’s plays probably had deeper influence on his incidental verse than did the verse on the dramatic style. Playwriting gave Greene a broader, generally less educated audience; drama also demanded greater diversity of diction and tone to suit the greater range of character types. The ephemerality and comparative informality of spoken verse demanded images that were vivid, yet simple enough to fit conversational discourse. That Greene learned these lessons quickly is shown by Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, one year after Orlando Furioso. The later play features crisp dialogue interrupted infrequently by the long set speeches of which the earlier play had largely consisted. Of particular note is Greene’s brand-new imagery, drawn from the English countryside, not from the courts of Venus. When Greene’s aristocrats declaim in this play, they use hyperboles drawn from the contemporary world of commerce, not from Ovid. The most immediate impact of this new technique on Greene’s incidental verse is found in Menaphon. One year later, the pastoral story of Mirimida, which concludes Francesco’s Fortunes, shows even more strongly the influence of this play, as characters of different ranks speak verse amazingly different in diction and style; most of these poems are invigorated by images of English country life.

A different type of influence, but equal to that of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, was exerted on Greene’s incidental poems by James IV. Written substantially in rhymed verse of various schemes, James IV tested Greene’s ability to compose in a highly demanding poetic form a work for the popular stage. This form allowed Greene to imbue with a songlike tone this semihistorical tale of an English lady married to, betrayed by, and reunited with a Scots king. Like the tetrameter narratives contained in his romances of 1590, the rhymed verse in James IV gives the play a folk quality that softens and distances the often harsh events. The “feel” of the play is similar to that of Shakespeare’s late romances. James IV also influenced the meditative “odes” in such romances as Philomela: The Lady Fitzwater’s Nightingale (1592), Francesco’s Fortunes, and Greene’s Vision. The most striking traits of these poems—the single, integrated image and the perspective of melancholy wisdom—appear in numerous passages in the play.

The quiet lyricism of many of the speeches in James IV rehearses the tone of the “odes”; the emphasis on “I” and on the image of the speaker’s performing a simple act, whether playing the lute or embroidering, even as the poem proceeds, makes them highly personal. At the same time, each speaker moralizes on a familiar theme, thus making the emotions available to all. Since the moral reflects explicitly back on the speaker, not on the reader, the “odes” have a quietly salutary effect, neither accusing nor warning. The sprightly tempo of the ballad form of these “odes,” influenced by James IV, helps the romances containing them to convey that gentle optimism that is the hallmark of Greene’s art.

A Maiden’s Dream

Greene’s only extended, self-contained work in a traditional poetic genre is A Maiden’s Dream, his eulogy for Lord Chancellor Sir Christopher Hatton, who died November 20, 1591. The 389-line poem holds a strange place in the Greene chronology, as it comes at the end of a year in which he may have published no other verse, either dramatic or incidental. In 1591, Greene had turned from the romance to the conny-catching pamphlet, its characters being crooks and tradespeople, its setting the streets and haunts of London, its language slang and trade talk. How surprising, in this context, to read A Maiden’s Dream, its rhyme-royal stanzas setting forth a young woman’s vision of Hatton on his bier, “all in armour clad . . . a crown of Oliues on his helme . . .”; weeping Astraea holds his head in her lap, while tearful nymphs surround them. It is the sort of scene that Greene had not painted since his romance Alcida: Greene’s Metamorphosis (1588), which had featured three pairs of emblematic poems adorning the tombs of fallen lovers. After the allegorical stage is set and the characters introduced, however, A Maiden’s Dream proceeds in a different manner from that of the earlier work. Whereas the Alcida poems had piled up mythological parallels to the miseries of the lovers in the story, A Maiden’s Dream presents allegorical figures: Justice, Temperance, Religion, and so on, who speak about affairs of state in England and Hatton’s record of service. The gods are mentioned once or twice, for atmosphere, but Greene’s intent is to recount the dead chancellor’s deeds and, by so doing, present his own vision of an ideal England.

Within the series of eulogies presented in turn by each of the arrayed Virtues, Greene comments on other issues: religion, foreign wars, and the conflicts of classes; his views are typically moderate, his tone unembittered. As readers of the pamphlets or the plays might expect, his principal causes are charity and mercy, and Hatton becomes a convenient symbol of them both. Like his incidental poems from 1588 on, A Maiden’s Dream was clearly influenced by Greene’s playwriting. The later plays, particularly James IV, gave Greene fluency in composing dramatic rhymed verse, while his playwriting experience as a whole enabled him to present an idea graphically and concisely; thus, the allegorical frame. The plays also taught him to intensify emotion and change mood through the use of vivid images from everyday life, rather than through mythological hyperbole.

Although Greene would not again publish verse, whether extended, dramatic, or incidental, A Maiden’s Dream gave him practice with a framework—the dream vision—and a mode—allegory—that he would employ the following year in another patriotic work, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier. This prose work is one more example of Greene’s ability to apply in one genre the lessons learned in another.


Robert Greene Short Fiction Analysis


Greene, Robert