The Elizabethan period (1558 to 1603) in poetry is characterized by a number of frequently overlapping developments. The introduction and adaptation of themes, models and verse forms from other European traditions and classical literature, the Elizabethan song tradition, the emergence of a courtly poetry often centred around the figure of the monarch and the growth of a verse-based drama are among the most important of these developments.
Moreover, a large number of Elizabethan poets wrote songs, including Nicholas Grimald, Thomas Nashe and Robert Southwell. There are also a certain number of extant anonymous songs from the period. Arguably, the greatest of all the songwriters was Thomas Campion. Campion is notable because of his experiments with metres based on counting syllables rather than stresses. These quantitative metres were based on classical models and should be viewed as part of the wider Elizabethan revival of Greek and Roman artistic methods.
The songs were printed either in miscellanies or anthologies such as Richard Tottel’s 1557 songs and sonnets printed to be performed. These performances formed an integral part of the both pubic and private entertainment. By the end of the 16th century, a new generation of composers, including John Dowland, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons. Thomas Morley was instrumental to promoting the art of Elizabethan song to an extremely high musical level.
THE ELIZABETHAN PERIOD
After the religious tussle that rocked the entire England the reign of Bloody Mary, there was need to create the atmosphere which could help in the production of great literature. Queen Elizabeth created a conducive environment for the growth of new literature. The prosperity that greeted England during this period changed a lot of things in the polity. And this also affected the writing of literature. Several general characteristics dominated the Elizabethan period which include:
- The period had the great variety of almost unlimited creative force; it includes works of many kinds in both verse and prose, and ranges in spirit from platonic idealism or the most delightful romance to the level of very repulsive realism.
- The period was mainly dominated by the spirit of romance.
- It was full of the spirit of dramatic action.
- The style exhibited romantic luxuriance, which sometimes takes the form of elaborate affectations of which the favourite ‘conceit’ is only the most apparent.
- It was partly a period of experimentation. Many efforts were made to give prolonged poetical treatment to many subjects essentially prosaic, for example to systems of theological or scientific thought, or to the geography of England.
- It continued to be largely influenced by the literature of Italy, and to a less degree by those of France and Spain.
- The majority of the writers were men and the literary spirit was all-pervasive.
The poems of both Humfrey Giffford and William Shakespeare are used to illustrate these features as shall be seen in the subsequent units.
Humfrey Gifford: A Major Elizabethan Poet
Most writers of the history of the poetry and literature of the Elizabethan age have not so much mentioned the name of Humfrey Gifford. George Ellis gives three short pieces of Giffords in his “Specimens of the Early English Poets” (1845), and Edward Farr reprinted seven of the religious poems in his “Select Poetry, Chiefly Devotional, of the Reign of Elizabethan” (1845), and the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart reprinted the poems of Gifford in 1870 in an edition of one hundred and six copies, and again in 1875 in one of forty-five copies, both impressions being for private circulation.
There is but one copy of the original edition of Gifford’s collection of poems and prose translations called “A Posie of Gilloflowers”. This according to L.W. Payne ((1903) is catalogued in the British Museum. The most important and trustworthy evidence one could find concerning Gifford is found in the Epistles-Dedicatory prefixed to the “Posie” and in certain occasional and personal references in the poems themselves. The first of the Epistles begins with” “To the worshipful, his very good Master, Edward Cope of Edon”. The second Epistle – Dedicatory is addressed to “the worshipful John Stafford of bletherwicke, Esquire”, to whom the author acknowledges himself deeply indebted for professed courtesies and good opinion.
Gifford’s poetry could be classified into love poems, humorous pieces, religious and allegorical poems and occasional poems. As to the general features of style, it may be noted that the use of alliteration is quite frequent and often rather rough and inharmonious in effect. This was, however, a prominent feature of the poetry of his time, and should not be condemned too severely. Here are a few examples:
Rash Rancour’s rage procures fond furious fightes;
peace makes men swim in seas of sweet delights.
(A commendation of peace p. 58).
Who wisely waies false fortune’s fickle change.
(Of the Instability of Fortuen, p. 70).
The juxtaposition of extremes, commonly known as Petrarchism, is of frequent occurrence. The following example illustrates also the extreme pressure on alliteration:
In mirth they moane, yet smile amidst their woe:
In fire they freese, in frost they fry straightway:
Swift legges to runne, yet are not able goe:
Such is the state in which poore lovers stay.
(Of the Uncontented Estate of Lovers, p. 18).
Another quotation showing the combination of internal rhyme with alliteration has a pleasing effect:
Her smiles are wyles, to cause men hope for hap,
Her traynes breed paynes, thought pleasant be the show,
Him whom she now doth dandle in her lap,
Straightway sustains a wretched overthrow.
(On the Instability of Fortune, p. 71).
It seems the metrical structure is almost mechanical in its regularity, yet, as has been indicated, it flows naturally and spontaneously.
The love poems seem to center around one Gentlewoman. One could easily imagine that every poem records some phase of an actual passion. In the poem, “A Renouncing of Love”, the poet argues from the absolutely foolish antics of lovers that there is no reason in love:
They frye and freese in myldest weather.
They weepe and laugh, even both together…
Since reason rules not Venus’ sport,
No reason bids me scale that forte.
In another, “For his Friende”, he bewails the torments of Cupid’s bondage which he must endure, and prays his mistress to have pity on him:
As late abrode I cast my lookes,
In Fancie’s lune I fast was cought,
And beauty with her bayted hookes,
Hath me alas in bondage brought;
I love, but lacke the thing I crave:
I live, but want my chiefest good,
I hope, but hap I cannot have,
I serve, but starve for want of foode…
Deare dame, in humble sort I sew,
Since mine estate to you is known
Voutsafe my dolefull case to rew.
And save his life who is your owne.
Humfrey Gifford’s verses are fine Renaissance verses. Most of his verses are written in couplets and quatrains. They are not too different from Shakespearean sonnets and other Elizabethan poems.
The Style of Elizabethan Poetry
Elizabethan poems were often written in iambic meters, based on a metrical foot of two syllables, one unstressed and one stressed. However, much metrical experimentation took place during the period, and many of the songs, in particular departed widely from the iambic norm. Moreover, most of the poems were courtly poems usually written in couplets and quatrains. While some of the Elizabethan poets dwelt so much on the use of wit and conceit. For instance, Shakespeare’s sonnets contain much units and conceits.
The Elizabethan poetry was important in the phase of English poetry. The Elizabethan period brought a lot of changes to modern English poetry. Hitherto, many of the new English poets still follow the Elizabethan pattern of poetry writing. Hence, it can be deduced that the Elizabethan period was as important in the history of English poetry just like any other periods.
In this article, we have been able to introduce the Elizabethan poetry and its place during the Renaissance in England. We have discussed the important trends of Elizabethan period and most importantly, we also introduced Humfrey Gifford to you as an example of Elizabethan poet. In the next unit, we shall discuss the sonnets of Shakespeare and Shakespearean style.