A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
SPENSER, SIDNEY, AND THEIR CIRCLE

THE second phase of the English Renaissance was not like the first: the Reformation came between. Our earliest humanists had remained good Catholics, who hoped like Erasmus to reform the Church from within. Even Henry VIII's breach with Rome did not at first involve any fundamental change in creed or liturgy. But under Edward VI England went definitely Protestant, and after the Marian reaction Elizabeth established the English Church on that middle way on which it has stood ever since. Elizabeth herself was no zealot in religion, though circumstances at last forced on her the rôle of Protestant champion. The policy which kept England out of war, husbanding its strength, for nearly thirty years, bred a proud sense of nationality and independence, and made the Queen its idol. Confident in their strength and unity at home, Englishmen began to cast covetous eyes on the New World, which hitherto they had left Spain to loot. Protestantism, nationalism, imperialism-- these notes occur again and again in Spenser's poetry.

Other more purely literary influences differentiated the second phase of our Renaissance poetry from the first. Wyatt and Surrey knew no Greek; Spenser and Sidney knew a good deal, if not a great deal. Again, in Tudor days the influence of Italy was paramount; but though the Renaissance began there it presently spread beyond the Alps, and by the middle o£ the sixteenth century the star of Italy was on the wane and primacy in literature had passed to France, where the Pléiade, brilliantly led by Ronsard, addressed itself to the reformation of French poetry in all its branches. Spenser's debt to Italian poetry is immense in The Faerie Queene, but the chief influence in his earlier poems comes from France not Italy. Finally, when Wyatt was in Rome Petrarchism for the moment was all the fashion, and it was Petrarch whom Wyatt took for his model. The influence of Petrarch persisted to the end of the century; it is frequently felt in Spenser, especially, of course, in

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