Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“I know the world, and believe in God,” Greville once remarked, thereby revealing the deep fissure that ran through both his public and private lives. As a counselor to three successive English monarchs, the poet assuredly did “know the world,” most notably the fractious, artificial world of the royal court. For many decades he was able to survive and even to flourish in this often treacherous environment. Greville was also a staunch Protestant of Calvinist persuasions, quick to pass flinty moral judgments on the same courtly life in which he participated so adroitly.

In the love poetry of the Renaissance English court—all aspiring courtiers sought to become adept at versifying—love is seen as an ennobling passion, the pursued lady as an object of extravagant worship, and the conventions of courtship as semireligious rituals. Furthermore, while the ultimate (and expected) object of the romantic chase is sexual consummation, the lady is nonetheless venerated not simply as an ideal of physical beauty but as an image or reflection of an ideal of spiritual beauty as well.

In some of its important aspects, this courtly love tradition owed much to the fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch, many of whose sonnets lavishly praise his beloved “Laura” in this fashion. The Petrarchan mode was much imitated by sixteenth century Englishmen; indeed, the Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence of Greville’s friend Sidney (himself much imitated) is profoundly indebted to the Italian poet—to the point that Sidney was...

(The entire section is 635 words.)