Robert Greene Poetry: British Analysis
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”; 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.
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...
(The entire section is 2262 words.)