Evolution of British Renaissance Poetry

The British Renaissance began when Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558. The ensuing "Elizabethan Period" saw a number of fundamental changes to British literature. Poetry found favor at court (Elizabeth herself wrote poems and elaborate speeches) and many courtiers honed their poetic chops to gain royal favor. The new movement's foundation was born from the court of Henry VIII (1509-1547), which was alive with the air of the new renaissance; an atmosphere Elizabeth also adopted. Courts were places of high literacy, where new and original literature was praised and honored. The development and popularity of poetry was also supported by the printing press and the help of the Stationers' Company. The Stationers' company was responsible under royal charter to regulate the publication of books in England. Because the Stationers' Company allowed the publication of more lyric poetry, the most popular poetic form of the period, wider audiences were reached.

A major turning point in British Renaissance literary history occurred when Richard Tottel (c. 1530-1594) printed his anthology entitled Songs and Sonnets in 1557. His was the first anthology of English poems ever printed. Commonly called Miscellany today, its wide circulation brought courtly poetry to the English-speaking masses for the first time, which provoked an increase in poetic authorship. Songs and Sonnets went through nine editions in thirty years and was the most popular collection of its time. Part of what contributed to the volume's success was that it provided a peek into the lives of those at court. Poets like Thomas Wyatt used the genre as a way to map the nature court life, paying particular attention to the dishonesty of courtly flattery and the fickle nature of the women there. Tottel's collection was popular too because the early Petrarchan poets wrote about issues of religion that were of principal concern to the masses. Not only did the collection give a picture of the nature of life at court, it also provided veiled glimpses of a courtier's opinions regarding the English Reformation. Following the publication of Songs and Sonnets, many poets and playwrights published folios. This trend was later cemented by popular poet Ben Jonson, who published his first folio in 1616 under the title Epigrams.

Like other northern European renaissances, the English Renaissance borrowed characteristics from that of the Italians. One such characteristic, Petrarchism, is especially prominent in early Elizabethan poetry. The genre's eponymous originator, Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, wrote love poems from a single emotion, a "prolonged unsatisfied desire for an idealized woman" (Braden xxxiii). This poetic setting found a strong parallel in British royal culture: Queen Elizabeth was unmarried, strong-willed, and unreachable; everyone wondered if she would ever wed. Her many suitors could easily have been imagined to share the plight of the Petrarchan unsatisfied lover.

Petrarchan sonnets maintain a standard format: 14 lines divided into an octet and sestet. The beginning octet follows an ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme and poses a question or sets up a proposition or problem. At line eight, the volta occurs, diving into the sestet which has an answer or resolution. The sestet (often two tercets) follows either a CDDCEE, CDCDCD, or CDECDE rhyme scheme. Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the Petrarchan sonnet to England when he translated a number of them into English. He also experimented with the form in his own writings.

As authorship broadened, court poets experimented with style and form. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced the new Elizabethan (or Shakespearean) Sonnet form when his poems appeared in the first edition of Tottel's Miscellany. Surrey adapted the Italian sonnet, grammatically complex and difficult, to match English rhyming and metrical patterns. He divided its 14 lines into a tri-quatrain arrangement terminated with an heroic couplet. His new form, immensely popular as seen in Shakespeare's sonnets, followed a rhyme pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. A weakened volta still occurred following line 8 (similar to Italian sonnets), but the most prominent shift in tone came in the final couplet after line 12. The entire poem hinged on that pair of lines; without them, the sonnet would have no definitive meaning. The couplet served as the poem's keystone, unlocking the significance of its twelve preceding lines.


Shortly, poets began experimenting with sonnet sequences, collections of sonnets with a unified theme. One such sequence is Astrophel and Stella, published in 1591 by Sir Philip Sidney. This sonnet sequence exemplifies the ideals of Petrarchism and merges them with the Elizabethan sonnet form. Other popular sonnet sequences were composed by Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakepeare.

However, Elizabeth's reign was not without some strife. With the Tudor Monarchy came great religious strife to England. During Elizabeth's reign, Catholicism was outlawed in favor of Anglicanism. As England moved closer to the 17th century so did the rise of religious and Metaphysical Poetry. The Metaphysical Poets used metaphor and elaborate images or conceits in order to convey emotion and other non-physical states. Andrew Marvell, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan are included in this category alongside John Donne. The most prominent poet of the late 17th century, John Donne was forced to renounce Catholicism in order to receive a proper education. This greatly affected his works, and shows itself prominently in his Holy Sonnets.

After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 Britain moved into political turmoil. The Tudor Dynasty ended upon Elizabeth's death and, having birthed no heir, the crown is passed to King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England in March of 1603. The 'Golden Age of Literature' — brought on during the reign of Queen Elizabeth — continued throughout the reign of James VI, but signs of unrest began to show. Guy Fawkes, famed leader of the failed Gunpowder Plot was discovered in the cellars on the eve of the opening of Parliament's second session on the 5th of November, 1605. This resulted in more extreme measurements taken against Catholics in Great Britain, as the plot itself was believed to be a Catholic movement. Donne, who served a year in parliament found himself impoverished through most of James' early reign, mostly due to a controversy involving him and his wife, Anne Moore.

After struggling with his health, James VI died in 1625 and was succeeded by Charles I, his second son. Charles struggled with his Parliament and power. He believed his right to rule was divine and became known as an absolute monarch. In addition, his decision to marry a Catholic princess created even more religious tension in a country already plagued by it. He levied taxes without parliamentary consent. His reign brought about a very unique type of poetry, that of the Cavalier Poets Royalists who supported the king during England's Civil War. (This of course, was in opposition to the 'Puritans,' or non-supporters of the King and religious policies of the time). Both 'Cavalier' and 'Puritan' were slang terms used to insult members of opposing ideals. The most notable Cavalier poets are Sir John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew and Robert Herrick. Most Cavalier poets were also courtiers, with the exception of Herrick who fits into the category only for his style. The term "Sons of Ben" or "Tribe of Ben" was born from cavalier poets of the day who particularly admired the work of Ben Jonson. Most Cavalier poetry was light or playful in nature, and often contained entendre and other humorous elements. Another popular poet of the time John Milton did not entertain such Royalist ideals. His work The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) expressed support of the government's decision to execute Charles I for high treason, which occurred two months prior to its publication.

After the death of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell rose to power in England, disrupting the chain of monarchy. He died in 1658, at which point Charles II regained the throne.


Image of Elizabeth I courtesy of http://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/eliz1-scrots.jpg

Image of Charles I courtesy of http://www.irelandhistory.org/pictures/charles-i.jpg

Braden, Gordon. Sixteenth-century Poetry: an Annotated Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. Print.

"English Literature — Britannica Online Encyclopedia." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, Inc. Web. 02 May 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/188217/English-literature>.

Hamrick, Stephen. Tottel's Miscellany and the English Reformation. Criticism - Volume 44, Number 4, Fall 2002, pp. 329-361

Keeble, N. H. "Milton and Puritanism" in A Companion to Milton. Ed. Thomas Corns. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Luxon, Thomas H., ed. The Milton Reading Room, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton, May, 2011.


Oxford English Dictionary

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