Poetic English

The rise in the standing of English might very well be attributed to the poets of that era of self-conscious grand literature and the attempt to equal or better the works of the classical masters of the epic (Homer in Greek, Virgil in Latin) and their recent continental progeny. Edmund Spenser in particular was a proponent of the English religious epic, harking back to Chaucer as his literary predecessor in the vernacular whom he imitated not only in his use of French-derived feminine word-endings (which suited his stanza form's reliance on repetitious end-rhyme) but also concepts such as that of "maistrie". Simultaneously, though, he was looking to near-contemporary Italian authors such as Ariosto for allusions and form. It was the work of Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney and others at the court of Elizabeth I that set the foundations for English as respected language (which was therefore worthy of concern from its self-appointed guardians). This process was aided considerably by the success of patronage which synchronised the sensibilities of royalty, court and poet as regards language and the relevancy of the written word - in particular poetry (especially when sweetened with sycophancy to a willing Countess).

However, it is not Spenser who Jonson looks to in his setting out of "the consent of the Learned". In fact, the author of The Fairie Queene was much maligned by the latter, precisely because he paid little or no attention to "Custome" in the writing of either his early pastoral works or his epic. Spenser "writ no language" according to the disapproving Jonson. This was because his exaggerated archaisms, Italian- esque verse form, use of Chaucerian spellings and revival of outdated lexicon seemed to be to the detriment of English as a living language. With these diversion from the vernacular, how could English be shown as relevant and appropriate to art in its current mint as in previous forms. The subjectivity of his view remains, though, in the attempt to rein in the language according to the dialect of the learned élite. This is not to condemn his principles that were righteously founded upon inescapable contemporary moral certainties but only to remind that however liberal Jonson's views may seem, they condone the kind of impractical and potentially contentious linguistic prescriptivism which has haunted the subject of the preservation or rejection of aspects of language ever since.

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