Elizabethan verse

Reaction to tradition

English Metaphysical poetry was a very new kind of poetry for the Elizabethans. Much of what John Donne first wrote was in reaction to earlier Elizabethan verse, and was intended:

  • to shock his audience, if they were traditional
  • to delight it with his brand-new poetic style, if they were avant-garde.

Established poetic style

Typically, Elizabethan verse was a very smooth kind of verse. Poets like Sidney and Spenser had done wonders with the English language, which was changing quickly as it emerged into its modern form. They had managed to make English appear quite sophisticated, often by basing it on Latin and Greek models of verse. It had regular metre and rhythm and was often written in quite complicated forms. Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queene, had had a special stanza form invented for it, still called the Spenserian stanza.

Sonnets and love poetry

However the favourite form was the sonnet, which was almost always used for love poetry at the time. The ideal for any poet was to write a sonnet sequence, a series of interconnecting poems. Shakespeare's sonnets do not fit into a neat sequence, but they are interconnected, all 154 of them. We have to remember that alongside the sonnets, he wrote several long poems many written in the Jacobean period as well as published then.

Pastoral sceneUsually the sonnet, and the other love poetry, idealises the poet's mistress, often listing her physical perfections in quite exaggerated ways. Often, the poet is presented as dying of love because of some unkindness on her part: the subject matter was not so different from today's pop songs. Sometimes it was fairly clear that the poet was not emotionally engaged at all but wanted to show off how clever he was with his images and smooth verse form. The pastoral was a favourite genre for all this, using shepherds and shepherdesses.

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