Tudor Poetry (cca. 1520-1603)
1 Historical and Cultural Background
The Tudor Dynasty (1485-1603): Henry VII (reigned: 1485-1509); Henry VIII (r.: 1509-1547); Edward VI (1547-1553); Mary (1553-1558); Elizabeth I (1558-1603)
(Do not panic: this is background material to help you to put the English Renaissance into context)
1453 The fall of Constantinople
1454 Johann Gutenberg invents movable printing types
1476 Caxton at Westminster
1485 Battle of Bosworth: Henry Richmond defeats Richard III, is crowned as Henry VII, the Tudor period begins
1492 Columbus discovers the Bahamas
1490s Platonic Academy at Florence (Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola)
1503 Leonardo paints Mona Lisa
Pope Pius III succeeded by Julius II
1504 John Colet Dean of St Paul’s
Erasmus returns to England
1506 Erasmus leaves England
1509 Erasmus: Moriae Encomium (in English translation The Praise of Folly) a satire written at the suggestion of Sir Thomas More, directed against Church dignitaries and theologians
Alexander Barclay: The Ship of Fools
The watch invented in Nurenberg
1510 Erasmus Professor of Greek at Cambridge, Institutio Christiani Principis (Institution of a Christian Prince)
Colet founds St Paul’s School
1513 Works of Plato first printed
Machiavelli: Il Principe (The Prince)
Pope Leo succeeds Julius II
1516 Wyatt matriculates at St John’s College, Cambridge
1517 Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the door of Wittenberg Palace Church
1522 Pope Leo X declares Henry VIII Defensor fidei (’Defender of Faith’) for his pamphlet against Luther
1523 Pope Clement VII succeeds Leo X
1524 Erasmus: On the Freedom of the Will
1525 Luther: On the Bondage of the Will (response to Erasmus)
1526 Richard Pynson’s edition of Chaucer (not complete)
1527 Castiglione: Il Cortegiano (’The Courtier’) manual in the form of dialogue for young men at court regarding manner of conduct, speech, clothing, sport -- in general the ethical and intellectual qualifications of the ideal courtier. The book had great influence on Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney and Spenser
1531 Henry VIII declared Head of the Church in England
1532 William Thynne’s edition of Chaucer (first complete one)
1534 Act of Supremacy (England’s final break with Rome)
Michelangelo begins Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel
Paul III becomes pope
1534 Sir Thomas More executed
1536 Calvin in Geneva
Dissolution of lesser monasteries in England
English and Welsh systems of government unified
1539 Dissolution of greater monasteries
1541 Clément Marot’s French psalms translated into English
1543 Copernicus’s heliocentric theory published
Holbein (Henry VIII’s court painter) dies in London
1545 Council of Trent opens: Counter-Reformation begins
Sir Thomas Elyot: Defence of Good Women
1548 Bale’s History of British Writers
1549 The Pléiade manifesto published in France by Joachim du Bellay.
Book of Common Prayer first published (to set and control standards of piety)
1550 Ronsard: Odes
Vasari: Lives of the Painters
Julius III becomes pope
1553 Catholic restoration in England, protestant bishops imprisoned
the first picaresque novel, titled Lazarillo de Tormes is written by nobody knows who
1554 Mary I marries Philip of Spain
1556 Paul IV becomes pope
1557 Tottel publishes a collection of Wyatt’s and Surrey’s poems in his Miscellany
Tottel publishes Surrey’s Aeneid translation (books 2 and 4)
More’s Opera published in English titled ’Works’
1558 John Knox (minister in the ’reformed religion’): First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ -- written during his exile in Geneva and primarily against Catholic rulers Mary Tudor and Scotland’s regent Mary of Lorraine, nonetheless heavily building on Calvinist ideas of women as sinful descendants of sinful Eve, the pamphlet is misogyny itself
Marguerite de Navarre: Heptameron
1559 Elizabethan Prayer Book
Protestantism re-established in England by the Second Act of Supremacy
Pius IV becomes pope
1561 Castiglione’s The Courtier translated by Hoby
1562 John Hawkins starts Africa-America slave trade
Massacre of of Huguenots in France
Council of Trent re-opens (will close a year later)
1563 Foxe: Book of Martyrs (Protestant martyrology)
1566 Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (in Hungarian translation ’Handabanda Bandi’), the first English comedy published
Pius V becomes pope
1568 Douai College (seminary near Lille, France for training English Catholic priests) founded
1570 Elizabeth Tudor excommunicated by papal bull
1572 St Bartholomew Massacre (Protestants murdered in Paris)
Gregory XIII becomes pope
1575 Tasso: Gerusalemme Liberata
Ronsard: Sonnets pour Hélene
1576 London’s first playhouse opened
1577 Mary Sidney (Sir Philip’s sister) marries Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke, moves to the Pembroke home, Wilton House, Wiltshire and, with her brother, establishes literary academy
1578 John Lyly: Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit
1579 Spenser: The Shepherds’ Calendar
Irish ’rebellion’ against the English, Sir Walter Raleigh in Ireland, fighting against ’rebels’
1580 Sir Francis Drake completes his circumnavigation of the globe
Stow: Chronicles of England (sign of growing national identity)
1581 Sidney finishes the Defense of Poesie, writes Astrophel and Stella
1582 Gregorian calendar introduced into Catholic Europe
1583 Sir Thomas Smith: De Republica Anglorum (towards the definition of Englishness, an important concern of the age)
1585 Sixtus V becomes pope
1586 Camden: Britannia
Warner’s verse chronicle: Albion’s England
Star Chamber decree the all published works must have church approval
1587 Mary Queen of Scots executed
Pope declares Crusade against England
Marlowe: Doctor Faustus
1588 The Spanish Armada is defeated (’Afflavit Deus et dissipati sunt’ inscribed on a commemorative coin, minted on Elizabeth’s order to demonstrate God was on England’s side)
1589 George Puttenham: Art of English Poesy
1590 Sidney’s ’new’ Arcadia published (’new’ because Mary Sidney revised and edited it)
Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Books1-3 published
Urban VII becomes pope
Gregory XIV becomes pope
1591 Astrophel and Stella published
Innocent IX becomes pope
1592 Presbyterianism established in Scotland
Clement VIII becomes pope
Death of Montaigne
Kyd: Spanish Tragedy
1593 Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis
Church attendance compulsory in England
1594 Morley: Madrigals
Michael Drayton’s sonnet sequence Idea’s Mirror published
Shakespeare writes most of his sonnets (will be published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe)
1595 Sidney’s Defence of Poesie published, (edited by Mary Sidney)
Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion published
1596 Spenser: Faerie Queene, Books 4-6
Thermometer invented by Galileo
1597 Michael Drayton: England’s Heroical Epistles published (largely Elizabethan propaganda)
Second Armada attack fails again because of bad weather
1598 Sidney’s collected Works published, edited by Mary Sidney
Marlowe/Chapman: Hero and Leander published
1599 Juan de Mariana: De rege et regis institutione (defends tyrannicide)
James VI (of Scotland) Basilikon doron (defends kingly Divine Right)
Essex appointed deputy in Ireland (to be eaten by the savages -- or at least so the Queen hoped)
1600 Giordano Bruno burnt by Inquisition for ’heresy’
England’s Helicon anthology published (towards cultural self-definition)
1602 Bodleian Library founded in Oxford
1603 James I grants tolerance to Catholics
Samuel Daniel: Defence of Rhyme
Elizabeth I dies: end of the Tudor period
(the above chronological outline was based primarily on the one in Douglas Brooks-Davies (ed.) Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century. London: Everyman, 1992. plus on George Carter’s Outlines of English History. London: Ward Lock Limited, 1973.)
The period saw the large-scale development not only of literature, but of other art forms as well. Tudor architecture flourished (c.f. colleges built at Oxford and Cambridge; Hampton Court; Whitehall; timber-framed houses; Elizabethan country houses or palaces, rather), so did gardening, interior decoration, applied arts in general. This was a great period of English music as well: Thomas Tallis, William Byrd. Thomas Morley were active and well-received. Perhaps painting was the only area where England did not produce an outstanding master (Nicholas Hilliard does not count as such), so Henry VIII invited, among others, Hans Holbein the Younger over to his court. With Elizabeth’s ascension and her developing personal cult portrait-painting got a new impetus. We have umpteen (censored) representations of the great queen. (See in detail in Karen Hearn (ed.) Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630. London: Tate, 1995.)
Matters of, or debates over, religion, counted for much more than we, disenchanted ’postmoderns’ would think. From the Six Articles of 1539, through the First Act of Uniformity of 1549 to the Second Act of Uniformity of 1559, not to mention the deeds of the Marian Restoration Tudor monarchs showed intolerance in questions of faith and denomination.
Agreeing with Professor Brooks-Davies in his introduction to the Silver Poets anthology I also wish to remind you that despite great differences in spiritual and material frames of life, despite language differences and the passing of half a millenium these poets were human beings ’very like ourselves who wrote poems of dream and nightmare, sexual longing and frustration, of escapism, and of the greatest despair’.
2 The Literary Scene
Although ethnographers today see and can prove more two-way traffic between ’high’ (i.e. aristocratic) and ’low’ (i.e. popular), culture than was conventionally thought Tudor poetry was basically courtly, the court (royal or aristocratic) being central and unavoidable. (In fact it was not until the 18th century that poetry moved out from the court.) In England out of a population of roughly 3 million in 1551 (growing to 4.1 million by 1601) only a couple of hundred were literate enough to write elaborately. More could read though, but innumerable gradations of reading ability and material existed. Most people would have been unable to master e.g. More’s or Sidney’s printed works. (see in detail in: John Guy, Tudor England. Oxford, OUP. 1988.)
Furthermore, lyric poetry was not meant to be published. Poems circulated among the chosen few in manuscripts rarely getting into print during their authors’ lifetime. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published in 1609, were an exception. Much of courtly poetry was praise-poetry, immortalizing the monarch, the baron or the patron, following the patterns of the Italian capitali genre. Only poets born into aristocratic families and thus having substantial means like e.g. Wyatt, Surrey, Raleigh or Sidney could afford to write poetry to entertain and not for money. Poets thus were in a schizophrenic state: having to praise and flatter whilst seeing what was going on around them. Patience, forgiveness were not among the virtues of the average Renaissance monarch, let alone the Tudors. Probably this is the reason why English poets would frequently turn to Seneca who was in a similar situation in the court of Emperor Nero and whose wittily put stoicism they liked.
Consider this adaptation of Wyatt’s from Seneca’s play, Thyestes:
Stand, whoso list, upon the slipper top
Of court’s estate, and let me here rejoice
And use my quiet without lett or stop,
Unknown in court, that hath such brakish joys.
In hidden place so let my days forth pass
That, when my years be done, withouten noise
I may die aged after the common trace.
For him death grippeth right hard by the crop
That is much known of other, and of himself, alas,
Doth die unknown, dazed, with dreadful face.
Inseparably from the status of the courtly poet the capacity of language to obscure instead of to communicate was heavily exploited, as was astutely observed already by George Puttenham in his The Art of English Poesy in1589. (Note this in Shakespeare’s sonnets or in the obscene puns in Love’s Labour Lost e.g.)
An amalgam of European influences, English literature is very eclectic in the 16th century. Wyatt and Surrey start ’Anglicizing Italian poetry’ and think of themselves as importers and imitators. (Nota bene: imitation, a key notion of the age, is not aping, nor mere translation. It is rather measuring yourself to other poets, absorbing and appropriating their moods, topics and forms. As Petrarch put it, the imitator ’like a busy bee, flies from flower to flower and collects the sweetest nectar of each’.) So rapid and so vigorous is the process of Anglicization that a generation later poets, who still write in a strict convention, start complaining about it. Sidney is so self-confident already that he criticises bad poets around him in several sonnets in Astrophel and Stella. Shakespeare puts bad acting on stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ridicules it. Twenty years earlier the audience would have applauded the good mechanics, but now they get the point and laugh at them.
The main genres of the age are: narrative poetry; praise ~; elegiac~; love~; descriptive~; discursive~; satirical~; beast fables; songs; ballads; dream visions. Decorum, (defined by Chris Baldick’s The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms as ’a standard of appropriateness by which certain styles, characters, forms, and actions in literary works are deemed suitable to one another within a hierarchical model of culture bound by class distinctions’), is a major rule in Renaissance literature. The various literary genres were fixed in set ranks, not to be mixed with each other. The mixture of high and low levels as e.g. often in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays was considered unorthodox. Composing poetry featured very high on the prestige scale. It meant you were educated, part of the court or at least around it, rubbed shoulders with the ’beautiful people’ of the times. Starting with the pastoral, continuing with sonnets and writing the great narrative was the career pattern for many poets, including Spenser, Drayton, Marlowe or Milton..
3 Early Tudor Poetry: Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547)
Antecedents at home: Chaucer and his East Midland dialect, his five-foot line, many peculiarities of his spelling, grammar, accentuation and phraseology. Wyatt was an enthusiastic reader of Pynson’s 1526 edition of Chaucer. Both were affected by the English chivalric tradition, the amour courtois, though thought differently about it. Surrey felt comfortable in the role of the self-effacing lover who gives all and expects nothing in return, while Wyatt, probably under the influence of Northern Humanists (More, Erasmus and Colet) wanted fair deal in matters of love as well and was frustrated and repelled by the ’courtly code’. Their style also bespeaks the difference: Wyatt’s is ragged, down-to-the-point, common sense, Surrey’s is more elaborate, smooth, conventionally elegant.
Antecedents abroad: classical authors like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Ovid, Virgil; the Bible and the English Bible translations; the psalms of the French Clement Marot; authors of the Italian Renaissance like Petrarch, Dante, Pietro Bembo, Lodovico Ariosto, Serafino, Castiglione.
Both Wyatt and Surrey were well-educated and well-travelled, read Greek, Latin and Italian and felt, rightly, that they were members of the company of ’goode myndes’ dead or alive, who inhabited the world of high culture from classical times to their own. Private fame and originality therefore were not an issue for them. More important, it seems, was their commitment to Englishness. Trying to make up for lost time, they wanted to plant and domesticize mainly Italian Renaissance models into their own culture.
Wyatt imports ottava rima (eight-line stanza, rhyming abababcc); terza rima (three-line stanzas, rhyming aba bcb cdc introduced by Dante in the Divina Commedia); the sonnet (principally from Petrarch , 14 lines of iambic pentametre, rhyming abba abba cdc cdc or: cdc dcd or: cde cde, consisting of an octave and a sestet, separated by a turn/volta/.) With Wyatt the sestet sometimes ends in a couplet, beginning to show the ’English’ sonnet structure. He also used dozens of other kinds of verse form, e.g. ballade, rondeau, canzone, etc. He enriched the English language as well, hundreds of his words pre-date entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Petrarchism: imitation of the writings of Petrarch, (esp. Rerum vulgarum fragmenta…, the collection of Petrarch’s sonnets and canzoni), following his style, metaphors, paradoxes and oxymorons. Setting up the scene for the angelic, dazzlingly beautiful lady, adored, in vain, for her purity by the frustrated and anguished poet. A well-known Petrarchan convention is the blazon, i.e. a catalogue of the lady’s physical beauties: coral lips, golden hair, perfumed breath, alabaster neck, etc., singling her out as almost otherworldly.
Wyatt, unlike Surrey, was critical of this canon, for him love was not a transcendental thing, but confrontative, obsessive and embittering. (Note the tired tone in Whoso list to hunt…or the anger in the last couple of lines in They flee from me….) His renderings of Petrarch therefore are a mixture of imitation and individualism. In his poetry lover and lady are often almost enemies, but at any rate, confront each other as equals.
Surrey continues his master’s efforts ’towards a definition of Englishness’. (See his evaluation of Wyatt’s achievement in this area as well in his funeral elegy Wyatt resteth here….) He develops the Poulter’s measure (alternating, couplet-rhymed lines of 12 and 14 syllables); in his translations from Virgil’s Aeneid he introduces blank verse (unrhymed lines of iambic pentametre, later to be found in Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’ Paradise Lost eg.); further modifies the Italian sonnet (his version being abab cdcd efef gg: three quatrains and a closing couplet.) Unlike Wyatt, who turned to Italian models mostly, Surrey, ’the first English classical poet,’ had an overriding concern with the imitation of classical authors, like Cicero, Livius or Ovid. In his interest in numbers, symmetry, emotional detachment in the non-lyrical modes, together with his rationality coloured by metaphysical habits of thought he is a forerunner of Milton and Pope. His poetry is characterised by elegance, ease, by some classic, formal charm that sometimes results in loss of ordinary vitality.
(Nota bene: despite their great achievement in poetry, neither of them was a professional. Aristocrats had no profession, since having one was out of class, and had to be left for the servants. They were diplomats, courtiers who wrote poetry in the intervals, often as part of the demonstration of expected courtly skills.)
Their poems were first published posthumously by the printer, Tottel in his Miscellany in 1557. The 96 poems by Wyatt and the 40 ones by Surrey are given titles, putting all of them in the category of love poems, perhaps to suppress, during the reign of Catholic Mary Tudor, the political overtones present in not one of them. (The anthology has another 40 poems by Nicholas Grimald and 95 by ’uncertain authors’ as well.)
Things to do alone
- Compare Wyatt’s and Surrey’s adaptation of the same text, Petrarch’s Rime 140.
First, here is the prose translation of the Italian original by Marguerite Waller:
’Love, who lives and reigns in my thought and keeps his principal seat in my heart, sometimes comes forth armed into my forehead, there lodges himself (or is lodged) and there sets his banner. She who teaches us to love and endure, and wishes that reason, shame and reverence rein in great desire and kindled hope (or, who wishes that great desire and kindled hope would rein in reason, shame and reverence) at our boldness is angry within herself. Wherefore Love flees terrified to my heart, abandoning his every enterprise (also device, motto), and weeps and trembles; there he hides and no more appears outside. What can I do, my lord being afraid (also fearing my lord), except stay with him until the last hour? For a good end he makes who dies loving well.’
The longe love, that in my thought doeth harbar
Andi n myn hert doeth kepe his residence
Into my face preseth with bold pretence,
And therein campeth, spreding his baner.
She that me lerneth to love and suffre
And will that my trust, and lustes negligence
Be rayned by reason, shame and reverence
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewithall, unto the hertes forrest he fleith,
Leving his enterprise with payne and cry
And there him hideth and not appereth.
What may I do when my maister fereth,
But, in the felde, with him to lyve and dye?
For goode is the liff, ending faithfully.
Love that liveth and reigneth in my thought,
That built its seat within my captive breast,
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
But she that taught me love, and suffer pain,
My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire
With shamefast cloak to shadow and refrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward love then to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my lord’s guilt thus faultless bide I pain.
Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:
Sweet is his death that takes his end by love.
What differences can you see? Whose love seems the more constant? What is the difference between calling Love your ’master’ and ’lord’? How do you interpret the different wording of the last lines of the two sonnets?
- Using a reliable encyclopaedia (preferably in English) study the lives and work of the classical and Renaissance authors mentioned in the notes.
- Study some of the portraits Holbein made of Tudor personages. Note the representation of individuality and the lack of flattering in most of them. Observe the clothes as well.
- Study photographs of Tudor halls, country houses and objects to get an idea of the visual world that surrounded these people.
- Listen to music by Tallis, Byrd or Morley, intone (if you remember the words and tune of) Greensleeves, a beautiful song attributed to Henry VIII.
4 Elizabethan Poetry: Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Continuing the tradition of the Middle Ages, this period was also deeply allegorical, yet with significant differences. (Allegory is ’giving bodies to ideas’, or, in other words, is ’a story or a visual image with a second distinct meaning partially hidden behind its literal or visible meaning’ – as defined by Baldick. C.f. the representations, literary and visual, of Lucrece in the Renaissance as the embodiment of chastity). The queen herself was the focus of a number of allegories: seen as a Protestant saviour after the reign of Bloody Mary, she was referred to by many contemporaries as ’the English Deborah’, the biblical judge and restorer of Israel. (See this in detail in John Guy’s Tudor England.) She well understood the importance of visual language in an age of low litaracy rates and claimed monopoly over her portraits: she had to license the painting for it to be shown. On public occasions she would dress up like her portraits, thus conveying the image of ’the queen’, not of Elizabeth Tudor. Seeking the hidden, second meaning behind the visible, getting from the level of the ephemeral to that of the transcendental is the essence of Platonism and also of the Christianized version of it, Neoplatonism, the most encompassing philosophical trend of the age.
It has been said that the two most Platonic poems of the 16th century were More’s Utopia and Sidney’s Arcadia, though both of them were prose writings. The paradox can be resolved if one bears in mind that the main dividing line singling out the epistemological status of literary works was between ’fiction’ and ’non-fiction’ and not between ’verse’ and ’prose’. ’Poetry’ in Elizabethan times was ’fiction’, with all the implications of the word. This, and its principal means on the hands of Sidney and Spenser, allegory, made it eminently suitable to serve as a terrain for Neoplatonist thought. (The ideas of the Greek philosopher, Plato(427-347 B.C.) were first brought into Christian thinking by Plotinus (205-262 A.D.), and were further developed by the Florentine Platonic Academy in the late 15th century, Castiglione, Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola being the most famous representatives).
Sidney and The Defence of Poesie
Sidney’s theoretical writing, the first compact English poetics was published twice (!) in 1595., showing its great popularity. Written in response to a Puritan attack against poetry as being immoral and newfangled, the essay now is seen as its writer’s ars poetica. Sidney here debates with Plato who (according to the dialogues) thought poets were mad (creating in a state of exultation) and who reserved the role of the supreme educator to the philosopher. Both of them agree though that the human being is imperfect but is able to better himself and that language plays a crucial role in this process. Plato repeats the Socratian idea that language is a means to ’turn the mind round’, i.e. that you can change the way people think by speaking to them. In Plato it is people’s reason that should be targeted, and the best person to teach people out of their vices is the philosopher, the only human being in the famous cave scene of the Republic who can turn round and see the ideas face-to-face as they progress. Plato also says (one wonders whether he completely believed it) that sin is ignorance, and once you see Virtue it so ravishes you that you turn good automatically. (But what if by seeing Virtue you start loathing yourself even more and turn worse and more miserable consequently? -- an unpleasant problem here.)
Sidney, on the other hand, thinks reason, being worldly and bound to earthly rules, is inferior to wit which he understands as creative, not captive of the laws and having strong connotations of sanity. The philosopher likewise is inferior to the poet, for the latter can turn not only to people’s reason, but through the creative power of wit, to their senses as well. In other words it is not enough to teach people of the good, they have to be seduced into goodness by the sensual language and imagery only poetry is capable of putting in front of them. The piece of art, through the poet’s wit inherent in it, should recreate the process of its original creation in the reader, thus teaching him this creative ability and impelling him to do the same on himself, i.e. to create a better person of himself to remedy the Fall. When he speaks about ’man’s erected wit and infected will’ he serenely acknowledges though that it is easier to imagine our perfection than to implement it.
In creating images, the poet, according to Sidney, is rival to Nature, rival to God in his capacity to create something out of nothing. According to this aesthetics, creation is in the foreconcept, not in the artefact itself. In the process of creation therefore, the poet represents the world not the way it looks but in its desired future shape. Mimetic art, content with reflecting the world, thus is second rate for it limits and burdens people. The world being a degenerate, bad copy of the ideal (Plato), a shadow world in contrast to Paradise (Christianity), the more you anchor yourself in it, the further you are removed from the powers of your imagination which should free you. In one sentence: true art is to remake the world, not to reflect it. (The Defence… is rather critical on drama, perhaps because of the above. True, Sidney never lived to see any dramas by Marlowe or Shakespeare. Would he, a good Platonist and also a good Protestant, have liked Shakespeare’s tragedies?)
Mention has been made of the vigour and greed of English culture in this period. It is true of the development of language as well. Among the translations, adaptations and new coinages Elizabethans find themselves on slippery ground. Words stop being reliable as they change their meaning so fast. (E.g. the French ’nonchalance’ was ’recklessness’ in Wyatt’s vocabulary, meaning ’carefreeness’ but less than a generation later the word started to acquire its modern meaning, ’carelessness’. The historical parts in the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary will provide countless such examples.) Partly for this and partly for political reasons Sidney exhibits a marked scepticism about poetic language. His versatility, self-irony and apparent nonchalance frequently cover up for true anger he feels over the limitations imposed on him by convention: ’And other’s feet still seem’d but strangers in my way’ – he complains in Sonnet I. of Astrophel and Stella. Perhaps that is why he so likes to reverse what has been said before in the last line of many of his sonnets.
Astrophel and Stella
(’the star-lover and the star’) the first sonnet sequence in English of 108 sonnets and 11 songs, was written in 1581-1583, and was published after the author’s death in 1591. In a somewhat mocking and self-mocking tone it is a record of (mainly hopeless) love in the Petrarchan tradition, enriched and complicated by the Neoplatonist conceptualisation of the Lady as the embodiment of heavenly good who should be desired in the purest manner, devoid of any physicality. (Not only Sidney but his age in general liked to set Sacred and Profane Love apart as can be seen in Spenser’s Amoretti, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Titian’s (1487-1576) painting of the same title e.g.). The enterprise casts light on the basic problem of this aesthetics: images of beauty are meant to be means, go-betweens, helping the reader/viewer to get to what is behind them, to virtue, in fact, since in this tradition beauty is virtue, but the more beautiful the image, the more difficult it is to do so. Sidney often openly confesses the impossibility of disregarding Stella’s physical charm and not desiring her in the earthly way. A person characterised by extremely good craftsmanship but also by some cool non-identification or non-commitment, Sidney constantly watches himself watching Stella. Great lessons in human psychology follow from this approach, and make Sidney an eminently interesting poet, though a tragic personality as well who could never shed the constraints of his self and intelligence. Consider Sonnet 71 as a good example of self-mocking non-identification:
Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodg’d in beauty be,
Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vice’s overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovranty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly,
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And, not content to be Perfection’s heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair.
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But ah, Desire still cries: ’Give me some food!’
A pastoral love story, a prose romance with inserts of poems was first written in 1581 (Old Arcadia) and was revised but unfinished in 1583-1584 (New Arcadia). It contains a number of verse forms, among them eclogues and sestinas (6 stanzas of 6 lines, followed by an envoi which incorporates lines and words used before).
When he died (after a small military skirmish at Zutphen, the Netherlands) courtly people and the literati alike started to mourn him in dozens of funeral elegies, soon to be published in book format, the most famous one being by his friend Edmund Spenser, titled Astrophel. His name and work but especially his courtly behaviour soon became a legend, the model of the courtier as was prescribed in Il Cortegiano.
Spenser and the Shepherd’s Calendar
He runs the usual career of the Elizabethan poet and starts with the pastoral, The Shepherd’s Calendar. Written in 1579, containing 12 eclogues -- pastoral dialogues --, one for each month of the year, exhibiting great skill in various verse forms, the poem is an early demonstration of Spenser’s lifelong project: to put English poetry on the European map and hammer out an unmistakably English lyrical mode. The poem itself is the synthesis of Chaucer (after whom Spenser saw himself as the second great English epic poet in the line), Theocritus, Virgil, Petrarch and Ronsard. The 5 new verse forms used here and being Spenser’s own inventions demonstrate what has already been said about the energy and vigour of English poetry at the time. The October eclogue expresses, for the first time in English, the Elizabethan ideal of poetry.
’O peerless poesie, where is then thy place?
If not in Prince’s palace thou do sit
(And yet is Prince’s palace the most fit)
Ne breast of baser birth doth thee embrace.
Then make thee wings of thine aspiring wit,
And, whence thou camest, fly back to heaven apace.’
Next came the sonnets, Amoretti (written around 1595, rhyming abab bcbc cdcd ee), telling the history of wooing, refused and then requited love, ending in marriage which is celebrated by perhaps Spenser’s most famous poem, Epithalamion.(~ is a Greek term for a song or poem celebrating a wedding. Catullus, Sidney, Donne, Jonson, Marvell, Dryden and Shelley all cultivated the genre.) While Sidney’s forte is self-irony and the fast turns of his restless mind in the sonnets, Spenser’s sonnets are uniquely musical. Relaxed and even, they show traces of Classic elegance in simplicity. Consider this one, for example:
’One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves, and washed it away.
Again I wrote it with a second hand;
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
’Vain man’, said she, ’that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalise;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.’
’Not so’, quoth I; ’let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
Andi n the heavens write your glorious name,
Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.’
The Fairie Queene
His greatest project, however, was composing the great English epic. (He did not know about Beowulf ). He originally planned 12 books, but finally could complete only 6 massive ones. (Books 1-3 were published in 1590, Books 4-6 in 1596). Among other things, the epic is perhaps the lengthiest and most elaborate flattery directed to the queen, the ’Magnificent Empresse’ of the dedication. Elizabeth is effectively present in all of the 6 books, under various names but always as a storehouse of virtues. Also, the work is a grand scale demonstration of the power of the English language and imagination. Spenser relies on Chaucer, whom he refers to as the ’pure well head of Poesie’. The language he works out for himself on the pages of The Fairie Queene, artificial as it may seem at first, was meant, on the one hand, to preserve what was bequeathed to him from the 15th century. For this end Spenser uses archaic terminology, clichéd similies and references to medieval allegorism. On the other hand, (as a good Platonist) he did everything in his might to rid his language from all traces of ’naturalism’. Perhaps it is the language he chose to use which most convincingly suggests that the world of The Fairie Queene is an invented one, not the reflection of anything existing. The epic is a great synthesis of themes and influences. Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, Tasso, medieval romance, Renaissance Humanism, Protestantism, Neo-Platonism all had some influence on it. Quite understandibly Elizabethan architecture, gardening, dress-making, interior decoration, English history, geography and folklore also left their mark on Spenser’s magic land.
Things to do alone
- study images of Queen Elizabeth I. Observe power dressing and the objects that surround her in the paintings with special regard to maps and the globe.
- read Plato’s Symposium. It is not long and is very poetic. There exists a very good Hungarian edition annotated by Kornél Steiger, published in the Matura series by Ikon Könyvkiadó.
- study some Hungarian translations of Tudor poets in Klasszikus angol költők Vol. I.
- get acquainted with Edgar Wind’s very useful book: Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. London: Penguin in association with Faber and Faber, 1967.