We start our historical survey of English poetry with the period known as “The English Renaissance,” (or, alternatively, as the “Early Modern Era”). The English spoken and written then is often referred to as “Elizabethan” even though the period begins before the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It is more accurately called “Early Modern English.” It is the oldest version of English that a competent speaker of today can understand with just a dictionary. It is the language of Shakespeare.
POETRY CHANGES WITH TIME
We study poetry historically because, in many important ways, poetry changes over time. It’s not just the language that changes. The very idea of what a poem is—of what counts as a poem—changes. What is poetry? What is poem? What does a poem do? Different times offer different answers to these questions.
If you see or hear a poem written in 1600, it will look and sound a lot like a poem written in 2000. You’ll know right away that it’s a poem from the look or the rhyme or the meter. But these similarities, though real and important, can hide the differences, and that makes these older poems often harder to read or experience.
At the same time, you should realize that a lot of what we think of as poetry today would be baffling to Shakespeare. The great poet would not have understood as we do the idea that a poem could be “open for interpretation” for example. And he would not have recognized the concept of “open form.” It also never would have occurred to him to call a poem an expression of a feeling or of an idea. And he would have been very puzzled by the idea that poetry exists in its own closed-off realm, in a place where some people read and enjoy it and others avoid or ignore it altogether. Poetry for Shakespeare was not something other than ordinary language, it was ordinary language that was elevated, language that put on its best clothes, sat up straight, and paid attention.
CRAFT BECOMES ART
The Renaissance was a time when the ideas of “art” and “artist” underwent fundamental changes. In the preceding centuries, known as the medieval times or the Middle Ages, creators of poems and paintings were considered to be craftsmen or artisans. Starting in the Renaissance they began to be recognized as something more, as artists. An artist is someone with a special talent which sets him or her apart from ordinary people. A special talent is something more than an advanced skill.
In other words, a medieval poet had been more like a cabinet maker or carpenter. He learned a skill that anyone could learn and applied that skill to writing in the same way that a carpenter learned a skill that anyone could learn and applied it to carpentry. There were certainly good and bad poets, but there were also good and bad carpenters. Nonetheless, just as anyone could learn to wield a hammer, anyone could learn to wield a pen. In the medieval world, the arts were not thought of a special brand of human endeavor reserved for people with special talents. One indication of this is that most medieval poetry has no known author just as most people today have no idea who designed or built the house they live in.
The idea of the artist as something more than a craftsman began to take hold in England in the early sixteenth century. Compositions by the time of Shakespeare (in the late sixteenth century) routinely circulated with the name of the person who wrote them attached.
ART AS IMITATION (NOT EXPRESSION)/WRITING AS INVENTION
Today, when we read lines like these from Robert Herrick’s “On Julia’s Clothes”
we may recognize a poet expressing his profound emotional reaction to a woman. But the poet himself would not have thought of the poem that way. He would have said he was “imitating” the emotion of longing. This may seem like a small difference, but in fact it is not small at all. It determines what an artist does and how he or she does it.
Perhaps the most important word to have in mind when you think of poetry (or any art) is this word “imitation.” Imitation means making a copy or representing a reality in an image. I perceive a complex or abstract thing—“greed” for example—and I make a picture of it so that you can understand it better, as the late-medieval artist Peter Bruegel the Elder did in his illustration of greed:
Detail from Breughel’s “Greed,” 1556.
The artist is not trying to express his opinion about greed. He’s trying to convey what greed actually is.
The idea that art imitates reality (the word preferred at the time was “nature”) in fact goes all the way back to the time of the Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and will continue to be the primary way to think about art right up until the end of the 18th century.1 Shakespeare’s Hamlet is reflecting the common thinking about art in his day when he says that the purpose of acting is to “hold a mirror up to nature to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.” Art as imitation means that it has a moral purpose. We see our own folly and our own virtue in art and, in response, work to reduce the one and increase the other.
You can see why at the time it was impossible for a Renaissance poet or artist to think as we often do of a work of art as “open for interpretation.” It is reality that must be interpreted, and art is the interpretation. If you had to then interpret the art, you’d be undermining its very purpose.
Both Medieval and Renaissance art was based in the idea of imitation.
The second most important word to keep in mind when thinking about art is “invention.” The word, in this context, comes to mean “having something new to say,” or “having a new way of saying things.”2 It is a concept that arose in the early English Renaissance and which, when it is combined with “imitation,” marks a fundamental change in the history of art.
Previously there would be no need to “invent” in writing any more than there was a need to invent in painting. Medieval artisans mainly copied existing works of art. Medieval art was overwhelmingly religious and practical. It was used in worship and in education. Illiterate people “read” biblical stories in the paintings and on the stonework of churches and cathedrals. Because the creators didn’t put their names on them or make money off them (except in the way that a factory worker today makes money in manufacturing ), there was no purpose to being original. And since knowledge was something you conveyed, not something you discovered, you had nothing to invent anyway.3 Much medieval art would today be considered plagiarism. But that concept did not exist in the medieval times, and it was only just beginning to be thought of in the time of Shakespeare.4
The individuality of the poet, the difference of one poet from another, starts to become important in the Renaissance. Still, poetry, in Renaissance thinking, does not come from the individual, neither from the individual’s feelings nor observations. We saw early in the semester, when we read Pablo Neruda’s twentieth-century poem “Poetry,” that poets even today tend to experience poetry as something that comes to them and through them, and not as something that originates inside them. But at the same time all poets today search for the individual voice that marks their poetry off from all other poetry. Renaissance poets did not think this way. The measure of a good poem was its reflection of the general truth of the outer world (i.e. “nature”), not the cleverness or the individuality of the person who wrote the words down.
This outer world of nature could be the world of the senses—the world as you and I can see it—or it could be the invisible spiritual world, or it could be the emotional world, but it was in that case the emotions we all share and not something unique to the poet. So we can get poems like the sonnets of Shakespeare or Michael Drayton that give us an image of what lovers experience. The job of a poet is to hold a mirror up the world, to reflect it accurately.
This is very important: when your focus is on imitation, the person of the poet is less important to the poetry, or it is important in a very different way. If you focus on imitation, the poet is a craftsman, a mirror maker. But when you add the concept of invention, you take a turn toward valuing the person of the mirror maker. “Invention” takes us beyond following the rules laid down of old for making things. And this is why we begin to see our own ideas of what a poet is or what a poem is taking root at this time in history.
POETRY AS RHETORIC
In the Renaissance, the world was universally believed to have been created and ordered by God. The best imitation of nature must therefore reflect and reveal this order. But while nature often seems disordered, the orderliness of a poem is always visible. Poetry therefore raises to the mind the true order of nature. If we can’t see that order when we look at the storm-shaken, disease-ridden, civil-warring world around us, we can’t help but see it in the carefully wrought poem.
As I said above, poetry at the time had a moral purpose. Although poetry was moving from the realm of craft to that of the newly conceptualized realm of art, it was still classified in the 1500s and 1600s as a branch of rhetoric. That is to say, it had the job of revealing the truth (of nature) to the reader or listener. Because it appealed to the emotions as well as to reason, and because it reflected in its structure the true order of nature, it could be more effective than reason alone.
At the same time, it could also be dangerous, because it made lies more appealing.
WHO WROTE POETRY? HOW DID IT CIRCULATE?
Gentlemen of the age considered the ability to write poetry one mark of a true gentleman. These were also the class of people who had the best education. It’s not surprising then that the wealthiest people of the time were among the greatest poets. Many also considered it a public duty or as an enhancement to their reputation and power to produce poetry. Although this is the first moment in Western culture when it became possible to make money by writing and selling poetry, much of the best poetry of the 1500s was truly amateur. A gentleman would not do anything so vulgar as to accept money for doing his duty. Much of it was meant to be read among friends—other members of the upper class. Very little of this amateur poetry was meant for publication.
This does not mean that poetry was not taken seriously. It is a sign of the new prestige of art that poetry was too important, in these days before writing become an honorable profession, to enmesh oneself or one’s art in the messy business of sales. It’s true that booksellers sold collections of poems and made money from these sales. But no significant portion of this revenue ever found its way to the poet. There was no controversy here among the amateurs of poetry. Sir Walter Ralegh, Henry Howard (the Earl of Surrey), and Thomas Campion were among the most polished representatives of this amateur poetry of the late 1500s. So was Queen Elizabeth I, a rare example of an accomplished woman poet from the time.
But these amateurs were not the only poets of the era. At the same time young men of talent and means could make a name for themselves in the writing of poetry, but not by selling books of poems, at least not directly by the sale of books. Artists of all types made their living in the Renaissance through patronage. Since all noblemen were under an obligation to advance the public good, and since they all had an interest in advancing their own reputations, these same noblemen paid poets and other artists to create works. If you were a poet in England at the time of Shakespeare and you wanted to make a living, you wrote a book of poetry, dedicated it to some nobleman or other, delivered it to a bookseller for publication, and hoped the nobleman to whom you dedicated it approved of your poems and sent you some coin. Better yet, you hoped a patron would pay you to write poetry on the condition that you would dedicate your productions to him. His position in society was enhanced by the number of books written in his honor—which is, of course why he was willing to pay for them. The best patron, of course, was the king or queen.
It is a tidy system when it works. Poets get paid; gentlemen get praised, and readers get often astonishing poetry to read. But it has its drawbacks as well. For one thing it limited what a poet might dare to say. There were, of course, plenty of laws already in existence to do this. There was certainly nothing like the first amendment guarantee of free speech available to protect poets at the time. One would have to support one’s patron, and stay in his good graces; one would have to be the spokesman for his political causes and positions. One would have to have an ear to the troublesome and tenuous political machinations always under way. It helped to be strongly patriotic. The result is that literature tended to be a conservative force. Critical writing was apt to get the writer punished (a drawback but perhaps also a reason for conceiving of writers as authors and giving them names). Only people of independent means could afford to be critical, and they could afford to be so only within certain limits. No matter how rich you might be, you could be put to death for writing a poem in Renaissance England.
In addition to noblemen and the patronized deputies of noblemen, ministers of the Church of England were also common writers of poems. In some cases, as in that of John Donne, a poet who had lost his patronage by offending his patron, became a minister in order to have an income while he was writing his poetry. Others, like George Herbert, forsook the idleness of the court for the ministry and from that position of relative ease wrote poetry.
It wasn’t until the Early 18th century, (with the 1709 passage of “The Statute of Anne”) that there was the beginning of true copyright law in England. And even then, the Statute of Anne was a weak law, designed more to benefit booksellers than authors. Although copyright was granted in the name of an author, the author sold his work to a printer for a one-time fee and thereafter received no more profit from sales. Before the statute, printers (there was no distinction between bookseller and printer at the time) would sometimes get ahold of the poems of famous lords or even ministers or playwrights and print them without permission. Shakespeare’s sonnets were originally published this way.
WHAT DID POETS WRITE ABOUT? WHAT DID POETRY DO?
As I mentioned above, because it was powerful, poetry could be dangerous when misused. In fact, not surprisingly, not all poets wrote at all times with the idea of spreading the truth about nature or promoting the public good. Poetry in fact was used in all sorts of ways.
Of course there was love poetry. There will probably be love poetry as long as there is love. This is the era Petrarchan poetry, including the Petrarchan sonnet we looked at in an earlier chapter. This love poetry was often directed at a specific woman as an attempt to win her heart. But there was also seduction poetry. Poetry may be used to win a woman’s heart, or just to lie her into bed. Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and John Donne’s “The Flea” are among the most famous examples of seduction poems ever written.
Poetry among the nobility was often private. It therefore functioned like letters or like social media posts. Thomas Wyatt complains about how nasty the court of Henry VIII is (“Mine Own John Poins”) or about his unfaithful mistress, Anne Boleyn (“They Flee from Me”). Sir Walter Ralegh complains that his secret girlfriend, Queen Elizabeth I, doesn’t love him anymore (“Fortune Hath Taken My Love Away from Me”). Queen Elizabeth writes back to tell him he’s being foolish (“Ah, Sillly Pug”). She then writes a poem threatening to behead anyone who dares attempt a coup (“The Doubt of Future Foes”).
It is no surprise that there was a lot of religious poetry at the time, some of which was the basis for hymns that are still sung in some churches today. Poems were written to praise or worship God just as they had been in the Middle Ages. Poems were also written to explain Christian doctrine, whether by Anglicans like George Herbert, Puritans like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, or Catholics like Richard Crashaw. Poems were entered into the great religious struggles of the time. Unlike today, in the sixteenth century it was not only not surprising that people waged their political and religious struggles in poetry, it was expected.
Poetry has always been memorial (it literally helps us remember things) and has always conferred immortality in events and people. But in the Renaissance the idea of conferring immortality because an important subject of poetry. It’s no longer just something it does, but is something it talks about. And unlike the immorality of the past, which was granted mainly to real and mythic heroes, poetry now also conferred immortality on lovers, patrons, and the poets themselves.
Because poetry was so powerful and therefore so dangerous, it had its powerful detractors. In one of the most famous essays of the era, Philip Sidney composes a long, pose response to these critics. He concludes his “Defence of Poesie” with a curse for those who do not approve of the art: “while you live, you live in love, and never get favor, for lacking skill of a sonnet, and when you die, [may] your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.” (If you don’t like poetry, may you never find a lover because you don’t know how to write a love poem. And when you die may your memory fade from the world because you don’t have a verse on your tombstone.)
WHAT SORT OF POEMS WERE WRITTEN?
Most of the poetry we’ve studied so far has been lyric poetry, poetry that comes from the point of view of the poet and tells what she or he is thinking or feeling. It was in the Renaissance that lyric poetry started its ascendency on the ladder of prestige that would culminate in the nineteenth century with the works of the Romantic poets. In importance, at this point, lyric poetry, however, remained below narrative poetry. Poems typically told stories. Poems like Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucretia” or Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander,” are what come to mind first when people of this era think of serious poetry. Even plays at the time were most often written wholly or in part in verse. Plays were really long poems acted in front of an audience.
This was, as we saw already, also the age of the sonnet. Sonnets can be both lyrical and narrative. If you take any one of Shakespeare’s sonnets by itself, you will have a strong lyrical poem. But if you put them all together, you get a story about a poet and his friend and his mysterious dark mistress.
The Early Modern period is a particularly important period in the development of English language poetry. It marks a transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age, the movement from craft to art and from writer as craftsman to writer as artist. We can trace the development in themes and in forms that started at this time throughout the subsequent history. And this will lead us to a deeper understanding of what poetry is today and of how it got to be that way.
A Few Words about John Milton
We can’t leave this chapter without saying a few words about the poet who for centuries was viewed as the greatest, certainly the most formidable poet, in the language, the writer second only to Shakespeare. John Milton brought together religion and politics and enormous learning and was among the first people of England to devote the major work of his life to poetry. His major work, the epic Paradise Lost, is too formidable itself to get more than a mention here. It retells the biblical story of the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall of Adam and Even in the form of a classical epic. It is a suitable poem for looking back at the faith-driven authority of the previous ages and ahead to the classically obsessed poetry of the times that would follow. Although we cannot study such a massive and intimidating work here (the poem so intimidated the poets of the following two centuries that they seemed often almost paralyzed to write for fear their work would be compared to his), we hope that at some point you’ll be moved to read it. But mostly, we think it would be too big an omission to the history of poetry for us not to at least let you know it’s out there.
Thomas Wyatt, “Mine Own John Poins” (Links to an external site.)
Henry Howard, “Wyatt Resteth Here” (Links to an external site.)
Queen Elizabeth I, “The Doubt of Future Foes” (Links to an external site.)
Sir Walter Ralegh, “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage” (Links to an external site.)
Thomas Campion, “There Is a Garden in Her Face” (Links to an external site.)
John Donne, “The Flea” (Links to an external site.)
George Herbert, “The Altar” (Links to an external site.)
John Milton, Sonnet 19
Edward Taylor, “Huswifery”