In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section English Poetry

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Poet, Patronage, and Politics
  • Poetry, Gender, and Sexuality
  • Poetry and Science
  • Poetry and Religion
  • Classical Influences
  • Continental Influences
  • Poetry, Manuscript, and Print

Renaissance and Reformation English Poetry
James P. Bednarz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0209


The English Renaissance, the age of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and John Milton, was one of the most brilliant periods in Western literary history for the production of great poetry. Yet the scope of its achievement is so varied that any effort to account for its multiplicity is inordinately challenging. Between 1509, with the reign of Henry VIII, until the end of the Commonwealth in 1660, nondramatic poetry of the most varied kind—from epic to ballad—found a voice and an audience in recitation, manuscript circulation, and print. The period’s ideals were inscribed in the heroic narratives of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in a culture that embraced the epic as a means of political and theological reflection. But just as Renaissance poets looked outward at the turbulent world of early modern history, which they measured in terms of a mythic glorious past, they simultaneously gazed inward to focus on basic issues of identity and subjectivity, being especially attentive to the intricate trajectories of human desire. Beginning with the lyric poetry of John Skelton and Sir Thomas Wyatt, the blending of native, classical, and Continental influences added richness to verse that easily moved from the high to low, from earnest self-scrutiny and entreaty to mockery, play, disdain, and detachment. These qualities would mature in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. English Renaissance poetry is customarily divided chronologically in two ways. Scholars distinguish between either the 16th and 17th centuries or between Tudor (1485–1603) and Stuart (1603–1649) periods. The division between Tudor and Stuart poetry is useful, for instance, in tracing how different poetic concerns, such as satire and religious poetry, challenged sonnet and epic. It helps account for how a growing insistence on “strong lines” of condensed poetic thought found expression in both the measured Augustan style of Ben Jonson and the mannered wit of John Donne. But these divisions can also obscure significant similarities as well between writers such as Spenser and Jonson or Sidney and Milton, who share surprisingly similar attitudes on a variety of literary, political, and social issues. For quality, rhetorical genius, emotional complexity, depth, and variety, the poetry of the English Renaissance is unsurpassed.

General Overviews

One of the scholarly rituals that anyone interested in understanding the breadth of Renaissance poetry must perform is to read the historical overviews Lewis 1954 and Bush 1945 (the third and fifth volumes of the Oxford History of English Literature series) on 16th-century and 17th-century verse. You will probably find grounds for disagreement with their surveys, but you also will have to admire their skill in covering an immense number of works in different genres, while presenting a literary transition that takes readers from the late Middle Ages to the Restoration. Although, by turns, quaint, quirky, and weathered, Lewis was a voracious reader who still provides the best comprehensive study of the development of English Renaissance poetry in the 16th century: and he does this in alternating chapters that parallel philosophical and stylistic changes in verse and prose. He also successfully grounds the period’s poetic forms in the work of the late Middle Ages, providing an excellent context for assessing their native antecedents. Nevertheless, his division of the century between an earlier “Drab” and a later “Golden” style, as Winters 1967 has shown, is too pejorative and simplistic to account for the patent merits of the so-called plain style in the work of poets such as George Gascoigne. In line with Lewis’s estimation, however, Waller 1993 is an especially impressive treatment of the literary genius of Spenser and Sidney. Bush’s command of the field is equally impressive. He recognizes, from the start, the need not to insist too firmly on a difference between “cavalier” and “metaphysical” poets, since these conceptual modes and their resulting styles shared a more fluid interrelation in 17th-century verse. And he does not neglect the towering figure of Milton or the age’s heroic verse. Of the many more recent guides, Waller 1993 and Cheney 2011 provide excellent introductions to the earlier Renaissance, while Parfitt 1995, with a few questionable evaluations, renders a similarly comprehensive account of later developments.

  • Bush, Douglas. English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660. Oxford History of English Literature. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945.

    Bush provides an expert analysis of how Renaissance poetry was shaped by the concerns of its age, as he situates poetic form within the literary, social, political, and religious tendencies of Stuart culture. The period’s major poets are each considered in a separate chapter.

  • Cheney, Patrick. Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444396560

    Cheney divides his study among Henrician, Edwardian, and Marian poetry from 1500 to 1588 and Elizabethan poetry from 1588 to 1603. Focusing on the pleasures and uses of poetry, he organizes his book around a series of historical changes that can be seen in the key categories of voice, perception, world, form, and career. A helpful bibliography is appended.

  • Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954.

    This is an excellent starting point for students who want to secure a firmer knowledge of 16th-century English verse in its various permutations. Lewis is nevertheless at his best when considering the “Golden” period realized by the masterpieces of Sidney and Spenser.

  • Parfitt, George. English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. Longman Literature in English. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1995.

    Parfitt’s book complements Waller 1993 in the same series. He analyzes lyric, the poetry of place, poems of occasion, satire, and epic. It has a chronology, a general bibliography, and bibliographies of individual writers. Together Waller and Parfitt furnish a set of intelligent and wide-ranging introductions that emphasize the political and social conditions that shaped the writing of poetry.

  • Waller, Gary. English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century. Longman Literature in English. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1993.

    Waller’s informative account of the period extends from Dunbar and Wyatt to Shakespeare and Donne, and it is organized into chapters devoted to contemporary engagements with the period. Chapter 8, “Gendering the Muse: Women’s Poetry, Gay Voices,” and chapter 9, “Conclusion—Reopening the Canon,” typify the author’s interest in producing a more inclusive evaluation. The volume features a chronology, general bibliographies, and notes on individual authors.

  • Winters, Yvor. Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English. Chicago: A. Swallow, 1967.

    “The 16th Century Lyric in England” was originally written in 1939 and then revised for this book. In his assault on the English Renaissance canon, Winters responds to Lewis 1954 by dividing 16th-century lyric between the “plain” and “sugared” styles to suggest the superiority of such unappreciated authors as Barnabe Googe, Nicholas Grimald, Jasper Heywood, Thomas Nashe, and George Turberville, who were capable of direct, forceful, and moving verse. The “sugared” style is too sweet for Winters’s taste.

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