The English Renaissance

The English Renaissance arrived around two hundred years after the Continental Renaissance had flourished in Italy, France, Spain, and Germany. The delay was caused by the Norman conquest, constant wars, and general distance from mainland Europe. When the renaissance did arrive, the primary art form was writing; and England became "the land of the poets."
Although this period has often been called the Elizabethan Period due to the importance of Queen Elizabeth in increasing English prosperity and patronizing the arts, the entire Tudor family was responsible for ending the chronic warfare and introducing England to the modern age.
Elizabeth ruled England for almost fifty years and was the last of the Tudors. Though she never married and was known as the "virgin queen," her hand was sought by many during her reign.She was certainly the driving force behind the English Renaissance.
Robert Dudley was the chief candidate for marriage, but constant political intrigues eventually brought him into disfavor with the crown. As with many foolish men of the time, Dudley underestimated the queen.
Philip of Spain once sought Elizabeth's hand, but he later married Mary, Queen of Scots. When Elizabeth ordered Mary's execution, Philip attacked with his fleet, the armada. Philip's defeat made England a leading power in Europe.
Along with promoting the arts, Elizabeth supported education. Oxford and Cambridge became leading centers of learning in Europe. Though the universities were oriented toward religious studies, many writers attended classes to broaden their knowledge of the classics in Greek and Latin.

Renaissance Drama and Poetry

While poetry was chiefly considered as the only literary art, this period featured an explosion of activity in the London theaters. Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson were only a few of the men of genius who wrote and produced works in the classical and popular styles.
While strongly influenced by the Italian verse structure, English poetry developed a character of its own. The sonnet became an English genre, using quatrains and couplets to contain iambic pentameter. These sonnets, often in sets or sequences, generally dealt with love and romance.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Sir Thomas Wyatt, a courtier of Henry VIII, is credited with having introduced the Italian sonnet to England. Until Wyatt's time, the main styles of poetry were the ballad and the alliterative revival. While Wyatt's poetry does not always employ formal structures, it is highly ornate and gives interesting insights into court life.
Sir Thomas Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" deals with the entire court's obsession over the seductive Anne Boleyn (shown on the right), soon to the wife of the powerful Henry VIII. He warns the other courtiers to be careful. Calling her a deer too dangerous to hunt, he makes it clear that Henry's gifts to this young woman have proven his serious intentions.
Sir Thomas Wyatt's "The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken" uses the same metaphorical device as "Whoso List to Hunt" by comparing young lovers to forest creatures. However, rather than using the hunting metaphor, Wyatt talks about past love and recent betrayal. He tells, very vividly, what it is like to have loved and lost, calling it a "....bitter fashion of forsaking."

Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth ruled England for forty-nine years, during the prime years of the English Renaissance. Though she never married, her marriage status was a key concern in England's fortunes and the balance of power in Europe. Her poem, "On Monsieur's Departure," deals with the pain that the intrusion of politics in love affairs would cause her throughout her life. Unable to express her true feelings, Elizabeth kept her secrets and remained a strong ruler.

Sir Philip Sidney

More than soldier, courtier, and literary critic, Sidney was a well-established poet. He made a name for himself in the court of Queen Elizabeth and was one of the most popular men of his time. Sidney's chief contribution to English literature is the addition of the sonnet sequence.
His Astrophel and Stella sonnets center on a frustrated man who has been separated from his lover because of her father's higher ambition for her marriage. These sonnets actually tell the true story of Sidney and Penelope Devereux. Penelope finally married another man.
Astrophel and Stella "Sonnet 31" has Astrophel asking the moon if he is suffering from the frustrated love that Cupid causes, and in "Sonnet 39" Astrophel calls upon sleep to ease his suffering and reunite him with Stella through his dreams.
The Astrophel and Stella (Sidney and Penelope Devereux) love story ends in tragedy. Sidney marries another woman and makes his life one of never-ending adventure. Eventually, to the great sorrow of a large segment of English society, Sidney dies in a foreign war.

Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser was Raleigh's close friend and probably the best "pure" poet of the period. Living in Ireland for most of his adult life, Spenser composed The Faerie Queen which is the longest narrative poem in English, as well as numerous sets of sonnets and other moderate length works. His work has had the greatest impact on future generations of poets who tend to imitate both his styles and his approaches.
In "Canto I" of The Faerie Queen, The Redcrosse Knight is ordered by Gloriana to follow a lady and eventually battle a dragon. The Redcrosse Knight meets Error, a troublesome beast, that he eventually defeats, after following some valuable advice. Now the Redcrosse Knight is ready for the next stage.
The Faerie Queen is composed of six and a half books, roughly a total of 34 thousand lines. The entire work is an allegory and employs Spencer's special nine-line stanza which uses iambic pentameter in a rhyme scheme of A B A B B C B C C. The last line of each stanza, called an alexandrine, has a caesura and two extra syllables.
"Sonnet 30" is established over a double paradox, using strong metaphorical devices. The poet says his fire (love) should melt her ice (indifference), but instead the ice is made stronger. He also says her ice should cool his fire, but instead the fire grows more intense. These aspects of human behavior prove quite true because of the stuborn nature of love.
"Sonnet 75" is given from a poet's point of view. When the woman tells the poet that his writing in the sand is a waste of time, that it will be washed away by the tide, the poet responds that not all of his words will be washed away. Words he has written will keep their love love alive, hundreds of years after the two of them have died.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe was mainly known as a playwright, though he wrote some poetry. The powerful blank verse of his plays tends to be superior to the poetry in the early works of Shakespeare. Critics believe that if Marlowe lived longer, his works would have exceeded Shakespeare's.
In Marlowe's best-known play, Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, Faustus may have mirrored Marlowe's obsession with excess and living life to the fullest. Faustus sells his soul to the devil and is too proud to repent in the end. In reality, he battles himself and falls victim to his own ego.
Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" also voices the "live life to the fullest" philosophy. The shepherd offers all he has to win the woman he loves. This pastoral poem is fairly representative of the common style of the time. This poem prompted a parody by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh made a greater name for himself during Elizabeth's reign as a courtier, explorer, and soldier. His political intrigues brought him fame as well as adversity. Eventually, he was executed by the order of James I for his political views and actions.
Raleigh's non-literary activities have diminished his reputation as a poet and historian. Because of his dominating presence on the social scene, people didn't take his poetry very seriously. Also, much of his work was destroyed when he was tried and executed for treason.
"The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" is a perfect parody for Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." Both rhyme and meter are identical, but the message is a complete reversal. The Nymph tells the Shepherd that his promises are worthless because all elements of nature fade and eventually die in time.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was more of a philosopher and scientist than artist. His revolutionary ideas concerning the departure from traditional "natural science" and superstition were very dangerous for the times. It is because of the insights of Bacon and his fellow free-thinkers that western man was able to move out of the middle ages into the modern world.
"Of Studies" is a detailed essay that reflects Bacon's belief that Renaissance man should approach the world with a completely open mind. While he strongly suggests scientific study in other works, here he focuses more on the need to learn the wisdom of the past masters. His emphasis is on self-improvement and a broad range of knowledge.

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's name is instantly associated with drama, but Shakespeare also had a complete career as an Elizabethan poet. He actually believed that his plays would be forgotten, but his poetry would bring him immortality. Twice is his career in London, the theaters closed, so writing poetry was a natural outlet for his talent.
Shakespeare has two narrative poems of considerable length and a set of 154 sonnets that employ his rhyme scheme of A B A B C D C D E F E F G G. These sonnets are dedicated to his patron, a mysterious and wealthy young man. They loosely follow the pattern of a sonnet sequence as established by Sir Philip Sidney some years earlier.
"Sonnet 29" sounds like the ultimate complaint, as the poet says how everyone he knows has something better than he: skills, appearance, wealth, friends, and luck. When he reaches the point where he feels God refuses to hear his prayers, he remembers his love which makes him feel more wealthy than any other man.
In "Sonnet 73," the speaker is an older man, rapidly approaching the time when his hair will turn gray and fell from his head (this is compared to leaves turning yellow and eventually falling from trees each year as winter approaches). He claims that she loves him more because the sings of nature say she will lose him in the near future.
"Sonnet 116" attempts to define true love. The poet claims that, like the North Star which can always be found in the same spot in the night sky, true love never changes, even when there are good reasons for it to change. also, true love lasts until the end of time.
"Sonnet 130" is rather comical. The poet insults his lover in numerous ways, attacking her appearance, her lack of grace, and even her physical attributes like voice and breath. Eventually, he claims that these "unique" features make his love special and show that he really loves her.
"Fear No More the Heat o' the Sun" comes from Cymberline. Though sung by a clownish figure, the song has serious implications. To rationalize the loss of a loved one, the singer tells of all of the suffering and misery of life that no longer has to be endured when one is dead. Thus, death frees one from life's punishments.
"Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind" comes from As You Like It. Here, the speaker is a character who has been betrayed by a close friend. He feels that the decision to love another through friendship is very foolish because friendship is full of deception. The winter wind, which cuts us with its sharp and painful chill, is nothing like a friend's betrayal.

The English Civil War: 1625--1660

The Period

Though only covering the short period of time between 1625 (upon the death of James I) to 1660 (the restoration of the monarchy) this stormy political era produced many important British writers. The death of King Charles I, who was publicly beheaded in London, was one of many traumatic events that shaped the growth of the British empire.
The English Civil War (Scots fought too) was based on a combination of political and religious issues, far too complex to cover here in much detail. In a simplistic summary, Puritans objected to the corruption of the national church (Anglican or Church of England), and they went to war when the king closed Parliament.
Parliament had long objected to the king's behavior and his alliance with the Catholic factions from France, including his wife, a French princess and Catholic. The Puritans, along with wanting church reform, also wanted a stronger republican government, so they sought to limit the king's power. War was inevitable.
Early in the civil war, the Cavailers (the king's men) held the advantage and won most of the encounters. Eventually, though, the sheer numbers of the Puritans brought advantage to the opposition; and the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, turned the tide of the war. In time, the entire royal court was sent to France or safety.
After the king was captured and killed, in 1642, the Puritans maintained control over England and Scotland, under the leadership of Cromwell, as "Lord Protector." The dead king's son, Charles, was crowned as Charles II in France. He and the royal court waited for a time when England and Scotland would want a king again.
Eventually, Cromwell died and his son became the new "Lord Protector." The British people longed for a return of the Cavalier tradition as they tired from Puritan reformation and social constraints. In the "Restoration" of 1660, Charles II returned to England as king, ending the civil war period. However, the issues would rise again in 1688.

King James Bible

King James Bible can be treated as literature and art. It was a huge project which was accomplished by a committee of scholars appointed by King James I to translate the bible from Greek and Latin, not the corrupted French. Also, these scholars were commissioned to employ verse forms wherever possible and appropriate.
The "Book of Genesis" is the story of the creation of the world and man. The plot follows the start of heaven and earth, continues through the ceation of man and his departure from Eden, tells of Noah and the great flood, and concludes with numerous episodes of the conflicts met by the tribes of Israel. It is one of the most commonly quoted sections of the King James Bible.
"Psalm 23" is from the Old Testament. Psalm means song of praise. The theme is obedience and parental control by God who works in the role of the shepherd. If man obeys his God and remains within the flock, God will protect him and he will have no need to fear anything.

John Donne

John Donne was the chief name among the Metaphysical poets, those who stayed out of politics and wrote about philosophy and the meaning of life. Donne was a Catholic who converted and became an Anglican minister. His work, though popular within his social circle, was not considered as important literature until the 20th century.
"Song" is about a man who doesn't want his wife to "worry herself to death" every time he is forces to take a trip somewhere. He tells her, in a nice way, that eventually he's going to die, so she might as well get used to the idea. The poem had a nice blend of sincerity and humor.
"Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" describes Donne's belief in life after death and his powerful devotion to his wife. Using his best metaphorical language, Donne claims that mourning isn't necessary because he and his wife will always be connected and will be reunited in the afterlife.
"Holy Sonnet 10" or "Death be not proud..." builds the argument that Death is nothing for man to fear. Death is no more than a servant, one who performs his duties by following orders. Donne concludes that once his duty is done, Death "dies" and man lives on forever.
"Meditation 17" is one of the most famous sermons ever written. The theme deals with the belief that the church is the body and its members all gain or lose according to the fate of the church. Since "no man is an island," the church's death bell rings not for the dead man, but for the whole congregation.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson was the only important playwright of the civil war era, but he should be remembered as a leader of the Cavalier literary movement, following in the Shakespearean tradition. Though Puritans controlled England during most of the civil war period, the "Sons of Ben" were the best known poets.
"On My First Son" is an autobiographical poem about the loss of a child. The morality rate was very high in Jonson's time, so parents should have been prepared for a child's death. Jonson, however, placed so much love upon his first son that his loss was completely heart-breaking.
"Song: to Celia" is a love-song taken from a play. It's nothing more than hyperbole sung to praise the great worth of its subject, Celia. The singer claims that Celia's kiss is better than the nectar of the gods and her beauty is so great that it would prolong the life of flowers.

Robert Herrick

Robert Herrick was an Anglican minister who served as a chaplain for the Cavalier troops of Charles I during the English Civil War. While not interested in poetry as art, Herrick wrote entertaining verse that features a simplistic, musical quality. His spirited mood and themes make him an excellent representative of the Cavaliers.
"To the Virgins to Make Much of Time" is another seduction poem in the spirit of "Sweet and Twenty" and "To His Coy Mistress." Herrick's advice to virgins, either male or female, is to live life fullest in youth because it's a time that won't last forever. "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" implies that one should seek multiple romances.

John Suckling

John Suckling was a wealthy aristocrat who sacrificed his fortune and life to serve King Charles I in the English Civil War. He possessed all of the best-known attributes for the Cavaliers: a sharp wit, a love of adventure, questionable morality, and a fierce loyalty to the king. His verse, though simple, is very lively and humorous.
"The Constant Lover" is sarcastic and packed with hyperbole. The poet suggests one of two things: he is either constantly in love with another woman or he is the least devoted lover in the world. He concludes that the beauty of his recent lover's face is the only thing that could keep him "constant" for three whole days.
"Song" is a poem in the form of advice. To the frustrated young male lover, Suckling points out the pointlessness of being depressed, since it surely won't impress "her." He tells the young man to forget the girl who ignores him and find another whom he can impress.

Richard Lovelace

Richard Lovelace was another nobleman who fought for Charles I. He, too, lost fortune and life in the king's defense. Lovelace is best known for the actions that put him into prison under Puritan control. He rode a white horse into the halls of Parliament, demanding the return of the king, leading to his arrest.
"To Lucasta, on Going to the Wars" creates a unique paradox over love and honor. After telling his love that he's leaving her for the adventures of war, he says that he could never love her unless he loved honor more. Essentially, being an honorable soldier is the only way to be worthy of her.
"To Althea, from Prison" is written from within prison. Lovelace considers his freedom as a quality that is more mental than physical. He feels they may imprison his body, but his spirit will remain free. His famous lines from the concluding stanza are "Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage."

Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell could be named as a metaphysical or cavalier poet. His poetry and politics tended to follow the "popular" trends. While his verse is inspired, it tends to be overly elaborate, lacking the seriousness that belongs to the metaphysical writers and lacking the spirited wit of the cavaliers.
"To His Coy Mistress" is one of many seduction poems that follow the Shakespearean tradition. While the highly ornate couplets may lose the impatient reader and cause him to miss the point, the message is simple: coyness appeals to him but life is too short to play games, so it's time to get serious.

John Milton

John Milton is considered one of England's greatest poets, chiefly because of his masterpiece Paradise Lost. Milton prospered under Puritan rule, serving as Cromwell's chief writer, and suffered under the persecution of the restoration. If not for the intervention of Andrew Marvell, Milton might have been executed by Charles II. Instead, he went into seclusion and lost his vision. As a blind man, he recited to his daughters the poem that would bring him so much fame.
"How Soon Hath Time" deals with Milton's uncertainty about his chosen career as a writer. Having graduated from Cambridge, he questioned his own degree of preparation, making himself appear as boy rather than a man; but he was glad to be at a stage in life, however late it was, to begin serious work.
"When I Consider How My Light Is Spent" deals with Milton's blindness. He wonders what God would demand from a blind man and concludes that all God could ever ask is that he accept God's will and do his best, because angels also serve those "who stand and wait."
Paradise Lost was Milton's attempt to explain the ways of God to man. As he recreates the biblical narratives of the fall of the angels and the fall of man, Milton develops his characterization according to the Puritan belief of predestination. This massively dense work has become a "poet's poem," having great influence over the generations of poets who followed Milton.

John Bunyan

John Bunyan was a Puritan minister who was a "man of the people." Though poorly educated, he was a leading voice of his congregation as they stood in defiance of orders that only Anglican church services would be tolerated by the government. Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress while in prison for defying the law.
from Pilgrim's Progress is a rather simple, allegorical work. It follows the journey of a Pilgrim "Everyman" who must battle the evils and temptations of life in order to prepare for judgment day. In "Vanity Fair," the Pilgrim must pass through all sorts of materialistic temptations and continue along his path.