The Renaissance

Rhetoric, the Court and Sexualizing Fleas

However, as in the case of prose fiction, the flourishing of poetry came with Caxton’s printing press. Indeed Chaucer, Malory (author of Le Morte D’Arthur) and suchlike were the first authors to be printed by Caxton. By the 1470s these were ‘classics’, no less. It was in the 16th century, though, that the great period of English poetry began and - some would say – ended: the English Renaissance. C S Lewis, the great 20th century critic of medieval literature described2 two periods in the 16th century. The first, the "Drab", was personified principally by Wyatt (sometimes seen as a forerunner of Donne) and Skelton; while the second, the "Golden", is of less esoteric interest to the modern reader. The masters of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean poetic ages have managed to retain their vitality for four centuries. Perhaps due to their perfection of the love sonnet or the ambition of their grander works, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and Samuel Daniel especially have retained their power to express longing and desire exceptionally well. Each of these writers wrote beautiful verse sequences to imaginary or actual lovers alongside their famous major works in poetry, plays and prose. Versatility was vital, as evidenced by the popular concept of following the poetic (specifically Virgilian) career running from pastoral early works to a mature epic, with love poetry as a personal and passionate side project. Only Spenser followed this pattern precisely: experimenting with pastoral ‘eclogues’ in The Shepheardes Calender (1579) before starting work on his Arthurian epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596) in which he innovated a rhyme scheme totally unsuited to the English language’s word-endings in imitation of continental sonneteers. The poetic masterpieces of the age were assisted – made possible even - by the existence of a system of patronage whereby aristocrats would effectively commission poets to praise them in verse. Elizabeth I inevitably received the most lavish praise.

By the time of John Donne’s poems in the 1590s and the early 17th century, however, patronage was becoming hard to attain and as such he wrote to numerous different aristocratic women, developing a novel ‘metaphysical’ style, crammed with metaphors and born of understandable insecurity about his subjects’ interest in his verse. Donne was unusual in his frank, if obtuse, declarations of the dark inspirations for love; in Spenser and Sidney, love had tended to be either pure or impure. The continued popularity of Donne’s poems can be put down to their amusingly innocuous subject matter: most famously the pseudo- sexual mixture of lovers’ blood allowed for by "The Flea". If his later religious poetry and sermons appeal less to the modern taste, then than is not for any diminished poetic sensibility on his part. He continued to envision life and belief as a series of allegories and metaphors (the hill of truth etc.). Only Marvell (a poetic non-entity in his time) in the later 17th century competed with the ambitious and dark metaphysical conceits of Donne in "The Garden" and "To his Coy Mistress". The Earl of Rochester, though, merits a mention for the sheer sordidness of his poetic experiments in the metaphysical style and for being the most sexually frank poet in English before the 20th century.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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