Elizabethan Poetry characteristics

Elizabethan age was not just about drama, theatrical skills and theatre, but it was the foundational period that set the stage for a wide range of genres that would later become popular. Elizabethan age refers to the rule of Queen Elizabeth from 1588 to 1603. The poetry of the Elizabethan era was substantially different from that of the Middle Ages. There was some continuity, nevertheless, that made it seem almost as though medieval history and traditions continued into the Elizabethan era. At the same time, the viewpoint was drastically different and more modern because of the consequences of the Reformation and the influence of the Renaissance. Thus, while they have similarities, they also differ in terms of concept, subject matter, approach, attitude, etc.

Elizabethan poetry characteristics

Throughout the Elizabethan era, we observe a significant transition from the medieval period’s narrative poetry to lyrical poetry. A lyric is a form of personal poetry where the poet expresses his or her own feelings, emotions, thoughts, and sentiments. This is wholly subjective and basically spontaneous. Of course, there are many various forms of lyrics, including sonnets, odes, elegy, songs, and so on. The fluidity, sweetness, melody, and exuberant delight in life, all of which are spontaneous, genuine, and beautiful, are the characteristics that particularly set apart Elizabethan poetry. 

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The religious undertone in Elizabethan poetry is evident in Donne and Drummond’s poems. Their poetry is discovered to be blazing with a profound faith and a fiery devotion. Of course, Donne uses unorthodox imagery and phrasing to convey the traditional Christian thoughts and rituals, making the religious matter entertaining. It serves as an example of how intellectualism can be both entertaining and energizing in poetry.

Read More: John Donne as a metaphysical poet

Elizabethan Sonnet:

The sonnet was a completely new literary form during the Elizabethan period. It was brought over from Italy by Sir Thomas Wyatt whose inspiration was the renowned Italian Sonneteer Petrarch. The fourteen lines of the Petrarchan sonnets are divided into two major, unequal sections: the sestet, which contains the final six lines, and the octave, which contains the opening eight lines. The Petrarchan sonnet’s topic is love and the various phases of love, and it frequently depicts a very committed lover suffering because of his devotion to a beautiful but somewhat unresponsive lady. The concept of the English sonnet is based on Petrarch’s courtly passion for his ladylove Laura. Therefore, it is discovered that the Petrarchan sonnet offers the English sonneteer both a standard structure and a typical courtly love-theme.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Sir Thomas Wyatt:

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Sir Thomas Wyatt are recognizable figures, notably in the annals of English sonnet composition. But Wyatt and Surrey‘s writings weren’t published until many years after they passed away. Their sonnets first appeared in “Tottel’s Miscellany”, a well-known anthology of poetry published in 1557.

Sir Thomas Wyatt is not an original master of sonnet writing, but he is also not a slavish imitator. Without a doubt, there are times when his sonnets seem like laborious imitations. However, some of his sonnets also show his creativity in a way that justifies trying out other literary techniques. In reality, his sonnets exhibit great effort in the field of personal poetry while still including rich and metaphorical images, intellectual comparisons, and emotive language.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey is seen to be a greater master and more creative sonneteer. Surrey continues to be a notable sonneteer for the introduction of a certain technical originality, which Shakespeare uses more skillfully and creatively. He is considered to be equally attentive to the all-pervasive Italian literary fashion as Wyatt and concerned about reshaping English poetry in light of it. The first 36 poems in “Tottel’s Miscellany” are all by him, and four more are added later in the collection, demonstrating his reputation as a new poet.

Sir Philip Sidney:

A sonneteer of utmost importance, Sir Philip Sidney is greater than Wyatt and Surrey. “Astrophel and Stella”, a collection of 108 love sonnets, has earned him the title of best Elizabethan sonneteer after William Shakespeare. Astrophel, the poet, describes his intense and passionate love for Penelope (also known as Stella), the daughter of the Earl of Essex, whom he adored but was sadly unable to wed. Both subjectivity and honesty are more prominently displayed in the sonnets. In fact, “Astrophel and Stella” stands out as the Elizabethan era’s greatest literary achievement. It demonstrates Sidney’s skill in fusing cognition and emotion, profound impulsivity and brilliant intellect. He remained a notable literary figure in Elizabethan lyrics because of this sonnet-series, which bears the imprint of his spontaneous poetry and endearing character.

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Edmund Spenser:

 Edmund Spenser is a well-known name in both lyrical and epical Elizabethan poetry. He wrote 89 sonnets in his sonnet collection “Amoretti”, which was published in 1595, to express his love for Elizabeth Boyle, who would later become his wife. The sonnets demonstrate his mastery of imagery and melody and are technically complete compositions. These sonnets exhibit a surprisingly high degree of artistry in both the imagery and the versification. Although they lack the deeply personal tone of Shakespeare or Sidney, Spenser’s talent is impressively shown in them.

William Shakespeare

The greatest poet of the Elizabethan era—William Shakespeare—created the most effective kind of lyric poetry. A total of 154 sonnets are credited to him, and they demonstrate both his power and his inventiveness as a sonneteer. Shakespearean sonnets actually differ significantly from Petrarchan sonnets and are better in terms of both the way the author thinks about his topic and the structure of his approach. These are not just about sex love, directed towards a decent but unresponsive lady-love, but also about male friendship. He doesn’t adhere to any Petrarchan conventions, not even in the Dark Lady Sonnets. They are more realistic and lack the romantic affection of the ladylove. Shakespeare’s sonnets feature a dark, unattractive, and harsh lady who is anything but beautiful and gentle. The Shakespearean sonnet is divided into four main sections, three quatrains, and a final couplet.

Elizabethan Narrative and Epic Poetry

Renaissance’s influence may be clearly seen in the Elizabethan era’s imaginative narrative and epic poetry. “The Faerie Queene”, an epic work by Spenser, is another excellent masterpiece. It is a massive work of art whose magnificence is visible from every aspect. Even though Spenser did not survive to complete the work, it is vast in idea, magnificent in execution, and has excellent lyrical harmony.

Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander”, another epic narrative, tells the romantic story of Hero, a priestess who lived on the northern shore of the Hellespont, and Leander, her lover, who lived on the southern shore. Leander often swam across the Hellespont at night to be with Hero, but one night, a violent storm took his life. Hero later drowned herself in order to end her own life. The poem, a romantic tragic story, was not entirely written by Marlowe; Chapman later completed it.

Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucree by Shakespeare are two possible examples of narrative and epical poetry.

The language of Elizabethan poetry:

Elizabethan poetry was written in a language that was obviously modern. The Elizabethan period’s lyrical expressions do not exhibit the restrictions of medieval English. The language was more open, liberated, and similar to modern English. Elizabethan poets play an important role in the swift transition of the poetic language from what is known as medieval English to what is known as modern English. They contain essentially poetical artisans who are working with traditional subject matter while attempting to build a structured yet flexible poetic style. With them, modern poetry actually begins.

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