English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century

By Maurice Evans | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER VI

SHORTER FORMS OF ELIZABETHAN POETRY

i. Introduction

THE poetry of Skelton or Wyatt has an unmistakably individual flavour which is, for the most part, lacking among the Elizabethans. One always wonders whether a Wyatt love lyric is a record of a personal experience, but the average Elizabethan sonnet or lyric provokes no such conjecture and might be written by any one of a dozen different authors. One thinks of Elizabethan verse in terms of sonnets or pastorals rather than in terms of the writers who produced them, for the similarities between poems in the same category are greater than the differences; much of it has a curiously objective quality, as if it were written according to a recognized formula. This is not to say that Elizabethan poetry is shallow and insincere. The poet could write well without the spur of a personal love or grief. Peele's beautiful lyric, "His golden locks time hath to silver turned", was written as a purely formal compliment to Sir Henry Lee, on the occasion of his retirement in 1590 from the post of Queen's Champion, the Entertainment for which occasion Peele had been commissioned to write.

The source of this impersonal excellence lies partly in the glamour of the new verse forms which fired the imagination of the poets and aroused them to a fever of emulation which was itself sufficient to provoke good verse. It lies even more in the Elizabethan capacity for sharing in generalized emotions and responding to traditional situations, by means of which they found deep satisfaction in the conventional poses of the love poem or elegy. This response to the great commonplaces is a sign of innocence, and is comparable, perhaps, to the Elizabethan taste for the wise saws and modern instances which, however obvious they may seem, are nevertheless true. The Elizabethan sensibility was unspoiled, and the conventional themes could

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