English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century

By Maurice Evans | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII

HISTORICAL POETRY

THE literary judgments of posterity rarely coincide with those of a poet's own time, and we still sing and read the songs and sonnets which the Elizabethans valued as trifles, whereas the historical poems, which they took far more seriously, are nowadays virtually ignored. Yet history was one of the main subjects of Elizabethan verse, and the composition of serious historical poems by Daniel, Drayton and Spenser, the vogue of the historical play, and the effusions of Warner or Deloney at a lower level, all testify to the enormous popularity of the historical mode. The taste for history was a symptom of the Renaissance nationalism which showed itself elsewhere, as we have seen, in the patriotic development of the vernacular. There was a sudden growth of historical consciousness with the accession of the Tudors which found its expression in the great chroniclers and antiquarians of the century, of whom Hall and Holinshed, Leland, Camden, Stow, and the Italian Polydore Vergil, official historian to the Court of Henry VIIth, are the most famous. The XVIth century is a period of map-making, county histories and regional surveys, and Stow's London or Harrison's Description of England are typical examples of a very large field.

In a period so avid for moral instruction as we have seen the XVIth century to be, the approach to history was naturally didactic, and Sidney only placed history lower than poetry as a teacher of morals because the facts of life are not always as edifying as they ought to be. But when the truths of history are combined with and modified by the powers of divine poetry then indeed the most moving form of persuasion results, and this was what the Elizabethans understood by a heroic poem, and the reason why they rated it so highly. Spenser's Faerie Queene has an essentially moral aim, "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline", and its method is to take a great national hero and use him as an allegory. Shakespeare,

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English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Author's Note 7
  • Chapter I - Cross Currents of the Renaissance 9
  • Chapter II - Society and the Poet 20
  • Chapter III - Poetic Theory and Practice 31
  • Chapter IV - John Skelton 47
  • Chapter V - Wyatt and Surrey 65
  • Chapter VI - Shorter Forms of Elizabethan Poetry 81
  • Chapter VII - Historical Poetry 118
  • Chapter VIII - Spenser's Faerie Queene 132
  • Chapter IX - Donne and the Elizabethans 161
  • Bibliography 176
  • Index 181
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