Under the influence of the Renaissance English poetry awoke as from a long sleep at the court of Henry VIII.
INFLUENCE OF RENAISSANCE AND REFORMATION ON ENGLISH LITERATURE AND CULTURE : "Renaissance" is a French word which means rebirth, reawakening or revival. In literature the term "Renaissance" is used to denote the revival of ancient classical literature and culture and re-awakening of human mind, after the long sleep in the Medieval Ages, to the glory, wonders and beauty of man's earthly life and nature. The great literary movement, Renaissance began in Italy with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. But its influence was not felt in England till the last years of the fifteenth century when the English scholars who visited Italy at the time came back to England nourished on the Renaissance humanism. The Renaissance, however, had its full blossoming in the Elizabethan period (1551-1603). This late flowering of the Renaissance was due to the religious dissension which swept over England before Elizabeth's accession to the throne.
The most interesting significant product of the early Renaissance was the translation of Greek and Roman literature. The translators opened for their countrymen a window into the enchanted world of classical antiquity which appeared with all the freshness of a new discovery, the world of the gods and the goddesses of Greece and the great soldiers and statesmen and the Roman Empire. Moreover they brought their readers too into contact with the life and thought of contemporary Europe, and especially of Renaissance Italy. The invention of the printing press placed the translations within the reach of the common people. The translators amassed rich stores of material for the dramatists and poets of the future. Let us now consider the impact of the Renaissance on Elizabethan poetry, drama and prose.
The Renaissance was characterized by certain features:
Humanism: This is a term derived from Latin ‘humanitas’ used By Cicero to mean the cultural values that liberal education inculcated in man. The study of history, moral, philosophy, poetry etc. comprised the ‘studia humanitatis’ which become part of the curriculum in Italian universities. During the Renaissance man and individual became important and fresh interest was displayed in earthly life. The miserable sinful creature of the Middle Ages was gone, church lost its enormous influence on mankind. The Renaissance man was now attracted to personal glory. Definitely the time had come extol the individual and not the church.
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The New Classicism: There was an ardent revival in the study of Greek, which brought a dazzling light into many dark places of intellect. The new passion for classical learning, in itself a rich and worthy enthusiasm, became quite a danger to the language. In all branches of literature Greek and Latin usages began to force themselves upon English, with result not wholly beneficial. It said much for the native sturdiness of English that after a brief and vexed period of transition it threw away the worst effect of this deadening pressure. English did not emerge unscathed from the contest. But applied to this slight extent the new classical influences were a great benefit: they tempered and polished the earlier rudeness of English literature.
The New Romanticism: The romantic quest is for the remote, the wonderful, the beautiful. All these desires were abundantly fed during the Elizabethan age, which is first and greatest romantic epoch. On the one hand there was the revolt against the past, whose grasp was too feeble to hold in restraint the lusty youth of the Elizabethan age; on the other there was a daring and resolute spirit of adventure in literary as well as in other regions; and, most important of all. There was an unmistakable buoyancy and freshness in the strong wind of the spirit. It was the ardent youth of English literature and the achievement was worthy of it.
Under the influence of the Renaissance English poetry awoke as from a long sleep at the court of Henry VIII. The English poetry was kindled into new life by contact with the Italian Renaissance. There appeared a group of courtier-poets who, under the influence of Renaissance individualism, inaugurated a new fashion of writing poems of personal kind (for the great characteristic of medieval poetry was its impersonal character) dealing particularly with love. The two members of this group-Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey were the chieftains of the new literary movement. Together they introduced Italian love poetry which had been made popular by Petrarch and his followers. Wyatt abandoned the conventions of the long poem and the allegory which had hampered the late medieval poets. He imparted a new dignity and a new compact form for the short poem. He introduced into English poetry the sonnet, the most compact form for the short poem. Wyatt’s poems are short but fairly numerous. His ninety-six love poems appeared posthumously in ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’. The most noteworthy are thirty-one sonnets the first in English of which ten are the translations of Petrarch, were written in Petrarchan form other than the couplets ending which Wyatt introduced. He was also responsible for the most important introduction of the personal note into English poetry.
Surrey was influenced by Petrarch and like Wyatt he translated from the Italian. He translated from Martial, Horace and Virgil and his translations have something of the lucidity, conciseness and elegance of the originals. If Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it is Surrey who introduced blank verse, the great epic and dramatic measure in English. His translation of the two books of Virgil's ‘Aeneid ‘is undoubtedly significant as the first English verse translation of Virgil and also as the first example of blank verse; one of the effects of the study of the classics was to lessen the prestige of rhyme. Surrey's blank verse was a definite step in the direction of a literary form in which the greatest Elizabethans won their highest triumphs. Surrey’s sonnets were published along with Wyatt’s, in ,Tottel’s Miscellany’. Surrey devised the form which later came to known as ‘Shakespearan’.
Edmund Spenser was born in East Smithfield, London around the year 1552 and was the first great Renaissance poet. He was educated in Cambridge. One important effect of the Renaissance was the revival of classical literature, the revival which commonly goes by the name of humanism. Of the Elizabethan poets Spenser was most influenced by the Renaissance humanism. He is rightly called the child of the renaissance. He often borrowed from classical writer such as Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, and others. ‘The Shepheard's Calendar’ is modeled on the artificial pastoral popularized by the Renaissance and inspired by Virgil and Theocritus. It consists of twelve pastoral poems or eclogues, one for each month of the year. In this poem he sets himself to reform the English poetry in its kind, metre and action. His ‘The Shepheards Calender’ is the first English pastoral, the beginning of a long series of English pastoral compositions modeled on Spenser and it exercised a storng influence on subsequent literature.In his plan and conduct of ‘The Faerie Queene’ he follows the classical model of a heroic poem and takes a lot from the classical writers. Sir Guyon's Voyage to the Bower of Bliss is based upon a similar voyage in Homer's Odyssey. Spenser also shared in the rich sensuous life the Renaissance had thrown open to men. His poems,’The Faerie Queene ‘in particular offer us a rich feast for our sense. This is most significant of Spenser’s works. ’The Faerie Queene ‘ in twelve books may be termed as the first great English epic.He dedicated this to Queen Elizabeth.In it Spenser expresses the Renaissance ideal of adventure and active life,series of knightly adventures in particular.
Sir Philip Sydney a typical Renaissance man tried his hand and was successful in many branches of literature. One of his finest works is ‘Astrophell and Stella’ a sequence of 108 love sonnets. The sonnets which owe much to Petrarch and Ronsard in tone and style, are addressed to Penelope Rich, through the sequence is dedicated to his wife. In 1598 was published ‘Arcadia’, is an intricate love story in the form of a pastoral romance. The characters are vague and idealized.
Italian erotic play,one of the gifts of the Renaissance exercised great influence on many Elizabethan poets, Shakespeare and Marlowe not expected. Of the licentious poems of the period, Marlowe’s , ‘Hero and Leander’ in which the tide of Italianate eroticism reaches its height and Shakespeare’s, ‘Venus and Adonis’,’ The Rape of Lucrece’ deserve special mention.
Similarly, the Renaissance exercised a great influence on the Metaphysical Poetry. Metaphysical poetry is predominantly intellectual and analytical. In it an emotion or feeling is expressed through the working of the intellect. The poets who wrote successfully in the metaphysical style were all intellectual. John Donne, the leader of the metaphysicals, for instance, links up a wider range of ideas. His poems are all intensely personal and reveal a powerful and complex being. Most typical pieces of this group are ‘Aire and Angels’, ‘ANocturnall upon S.Lucies Day’ etc. He also aimed at the reality of thought and vividness of expression. His poetry is forceful and vigorous. His love poems the ‘Songs and Sonnets’ were written in the same priod and are intense and subtle analysis of all the moods of a lover expressed in vivid and startling language.
On the whole Renaissance brought about a complete change in the sphere of style and technique in the field of English poetry. Poetry become more real and pleasant dealing with humanism, neo classicism and the new romanticism .Poetry of the age breathes in the fragrance of fresh air of Renaissance.
(1). Edward Albert : History of English Literature
(2). Michael Alexander : A History of English Literature
(3). E.M.W. Tillyard : The Elizabethan World Picture