Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Development of Poetic Form in Renaissance England

It was, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer who laid the foundations for the rise of a vernacular English poetry. In his Canterbury Tales, he developed the iambic pentameter and the rhyming couplet, and to that extent, he is rightly seen as the ‘father’ of English verse. And yet, this essay will argue that Renaissance writers are overlooked in the central role they played in advancing a distinctive English poetic style. We often think of Pope and Dryden as the first great English critics, ignoring the important formal developments that took place in both poetry and criticism during the Renaissance. It was, in fact, during the 16th and 17th centuries that poets and critics really developed an understanding of form as central to verse. This epoch took up and advanced the idea that form (mainly structure, metre, and rhyme) can be a tool of expression; that manner can be just as important as manner. Though previous writers (including Chaucer) had indeed experimented with form, it was in the Renaissance period that formal innovations were taken to new heights, laying crucial foundations the for critical and poetic works of Pope, Dryden, and others. Indeed, the writers of Renaissance England are almost entirely responsible for the way we think of poetry today.

There were a number of different factors that led to this Renaissance emphasis on form. The first, and perhaps the most important, was the prominence given to the ‘dignity’ of man. The most obvious example of this is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ drawing, the presentation of the ideal man in all his grandeur. Pico della Mirandola’s work De hominis dignitate reflects a similar pride in humanity. This work was so influential at the time that it is often referred to as the ‘Manifest of the Renaissance’ in that it championed this newfound sense of man’s worth and intellect. One of the central ideas behind this text is the emphasis on man’s ability to create. As he says, ‘as the free and proud shaper of your own being’, you have the ability to ‘fashion yourself in the form you may prefer.’ This work highlights throughout that man was formed in the God’s image, and thus it stressed that man has and ought to use his God-given creative faculties. This is something that Sidney picked up on in his Defence of Poesy. Though he rejected the idea of furor poeticus, he believed that man was created as a ‘maker’ and given ‘the force of divine breath’. Sidney focuses throughout on man’s God-like creative power: ‘Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done…’ Puttenham also adopted this position when he wrote – ‘A poet is as much to say as a maker… Such as (by way of resemblance and reverently) we may say of God.’ After all, the word ‘poet’, as Sidney points out, comes from the Greek ‘poiein’ which means ‘to make’.

Thus, Sidney stresses the poet’s role as creator and craftsman, and the need to employ our God-given intellect in order to give glory to God. This intellect often manifested itself in formal innovation and the attempt to show wit and skill in poetic form, also influenced by a revived interest in Classical rhetoric, which stressed the importance of ‘inventio’ in writing. But it wasn’t just in divine poetry that this need to show formal skill was important: in the court, in order to advance themselves and attract patronage, poets often found they had to differentiate themselves from their contemporaries, and this differentiation frequently expressed itself in formal ingenuity and skill. What is more, because of the high rate of Elizabethan criticism, poems of the time, as Catherine Ing argues, ‘were the products of highly conscious artists, often working to rule, always well aware of the effect they wished to produce, and deliberately choosing certain means towards their chosen ends.’ And so, Ing goes on, ‘it probably seemed to the Elizabethan critic that the truth of a poet’s inspiration must show itself in his delight and care in labour.’ The need to distinguish one’s own poetry from that of others, and likewise this new sense of man as ‘maker’ and of poet as ‘craftsman’, all combined to emphasise the importance of form in the poetry of the day.

The most obvious and clear example of this special use of form is seen in the rise of figured poems in Renaissance England, again influenced by the renewed interest in Classical poets, the originators of figured poetry. They are, perhaps, the most blatant instance of poets using form to reflect content in that the poems are shaped according to what the poet is describing. This development was also induced by the development of print culture in the 16th century and the rise of competing printing houses. As Elizabeth Cook suggests, printers wanted ‘to demonstrate their skills in the display of uniform type in clearly contoured diagrammatic forms.’ Likewise, the rise in baroque art during this time led to an emphasis on ‘various layers of communication’ working cumulatively to achieve a collaborative intensity’ (Cook) – this is exactly what figured poems seem to do. Puttenham’s Pyramids or ‘spire’ poems show not only how poets could distinguish themselves from other through formal innovation (one of the spires must be read from bottom to top, manipulating normal reading conventions), but also how form can reflect meaning. In the first spire, we move from the earthly ‘figure’ of the spire up towards the ‘azurd skie’ to reflect the queen’s vow that she shall ‘mount on hie’ and ‘aspire / After an hier / Crown & empir’. The second poem, which we read from the top down, aptly begins with:

Sends loue’.

This clearly demonstrates Puttenham’s awareness of how form can reflect and even go some way to expressing meaning. Elsewhere, he argued that the figure of the pillar, for example, can suggest ‘stay, support, rest, state, and magnificence,’ showing a manifest link between form and matter.

George Herbert’s later poem ‘Easter Wings’, partly inspired by a similar ancient Greek poem by Simmias of Rhodes, is a more interesting specimen for analysis in that it uses its form in multiple ways at once. Rather than simply writing a poem in the form of its title, Herbert directly uses that form to reflect certain semantic meanings. For example, in the first stanza we see how, as man is ‘Decaying more and more’ so the lines diminish until we get to the words ‘Most poor’ (directly reflected in the placement of the words ‘Most thin’ in the second stanza). But then, the lines grow longer and longer once man is supported by ‘thee’, God, until they return to the length of the first line, when man was created ‘in wealth and store’. Moreover, as the two final lines show, the form is mimetically reflective of Herbert’s conceit – he is literally ‘imping’ the wings of the angels which he hopes will, with Affliction, ‘advance the flight in me’. Thus, Herbert not only fits his matter into a structural mimesis, but he uses this structure to enhance the poem’s meaning, allowing it various layers of expression.

This is just one of many examples of how poets of this period used strophic or formal structure as a method of illustrating meaning. For instance, Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’ is divided into three stanzas to reflect the syllogistic nature of his argument. The stanzas begin ‘Had we… But… Now therefore…’ reflecting the typical trajectory of logical induction. By splitting his poem into three large stanzaic units, Marvell is showing off his awareness of rhetorical and argumentative finesse, whilst also purposefully undermining his own argument and demonstrating its artificiality. Though I would not agree with Eliot that this carpe-diem poem really contains much ‘serious matter’, I would agree that Marvell has used ‘structural decoration’ to elucidate the poem’s content. John Donne’s poem ‘The Good Morrow’ works in a similar way in its stanzaic divisions, though to different ends. Donne divides his poem up into three stanzas, the first of which reflects on the past (hence the emphatic placement and trochaic stress of ‘Did’ in the second line), the second on the present (opening ‘And now’) and the third, on the future, which hints at love’s eternalising qualities: ‘If our two loves be one, or, thou and I / Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.’

John Milton also shows an awareness of formal importance in his composition of Paradise Lost. The great epic was originally going to be written in the form of a play, a dramatic production of the Fall of Man. However, he then decided that the epic form suited the story better, perhaps because he aimed at a sense of elevation and grandeur to stress the significance ‘Of man’s first disobedience…’ This grandeur would, presumably, come from the associations of the epic form with writers like Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey), Virgil (The Aeneid), and later on Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queene). And yet, when the poem was first published, it contained only ten books (perhaps to associate it with Lucan’s ten-book work, Pharsalia), and it was only later that Milton settled on a twelve-book form, affirming its affinity with Virgil’s Aeneid, also comprised of twelve books. All of this, according to Ing, shows Milton’s ability ‘To recognize that certain forms may mould some subjects more happily than others may show as much imaginative perception as to feel that certain subjects flow more happily into some forms than into others.’ Thus, by choosing to write his rendition of the Fall in the form of a twelve book epic, Milton was not only adding grandeur to his work, he was also showing an awareness of form’s importance and demonstrating the connotations that certain forms can bring with them. And yet, at the start of his work, he is keen to show that he will not be dominated by these traditional connotations. Hence, as Hurley points out, he picks up on the Classical idea of Mount Helicon as the home of the Muses, but suggests that, because his muse is ‘Heav’nly’ he can ‘soar / Above th’Aonian mount.’ Here, then, we can see how writers may want to work with their chosen form, whilst also working against it, or at least working against the form’s connotations (as Milton also did in his decision to write political sonnets).

Specialised use of form also manifested itself in the choice of metres and rhyme patterns of poems during this period. One of the reasons why metre and rhyme were so important was because much of the poetry written in the early 16th century was translation of earlier poems. This meant that poems were often indistinguishable in terms of subject-matter, all of them exploiting similar conventions and traditions. As Ing explains, Elizabethan lyrics ‘are notorious for their repetitive subject-matter… their well-worn imagery and their light intellectual weight.’ What this means, then, is that poets had to differentiate themselves mainly in their use of form, and thus our ‘enjoyment is dependent on our appreciation of that in the poem which is truly the result of the poet’s art.’ Moreover, because these poems were often translations of Italian work, English poets found they could not just replicate Italian forms, which were often unsuitable to the English language. This was for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the comparative lack of easy feminine rhymes in the English language. Thus, poets like Wyatt and Surrey adapted the hendecasyllabic metre of Italian sonneteers into the English iambic metre, and settled on rhyme-schemes which allowed for the increased difficulty of repeated rhyming in English. Hence, Wyatt introduced a final couplet into the sestet (cddc;ee) and Surrey changed the number of rhyme endings from four or five in the Petrarchan tradition to seven, also often using a final rhyming couplet. This gave the English poets the same freedom the Italians had, though it may seem otherwise. It also meant that the poems often finished with an epigrammatic clinch in the couplet, which poets often used wittily to summarise their poems. Indeed, the final couplet often became the location of the sonnet’s volta, as in Sidney’s sonnet ‘Thou blind man’s mark’, which ends with the conclusive couplet: ‘Within myself to seek my only hire, / Desiring nought but how to kill desire.’ This demonstrates how English sonneteers not only adapted the Italian sonnet, but used this formal adaption to their advantage.

This period also saw an increased awareness of how different metrical feet and rhyme schemes could have different emotional effects on the reader. As Puttenham points out, the variation of feet can play a significant emotional role in a poem: ‘for a foote by his sence natural is a member of office and function’. Thus, metres can be ‘sometimes swift, sometimes slow, sometime vnegally marching or peraduenture steddy.’ In ‘Of Proportion by Situation’, Puttenham talks about how different metres can make verse ‘either lighter or grauer, or more merry, or mournfull, and many wayes passionate to the eare and hart of the hearer…’ Thus, despite common misconception, it wasn’t Pope who first demonstrated the power of metrical variation when he wrote: ‘When Ajax strives, some Rock's vast Weight to throw, / The Line too labours, and the Words move slow…’ Indeed, the Renaissance and Elizabethan writers were already well versed in exploiting metrical expression. Hence in his poem ‘Anacreontick’ Thomas Campion uses a trochaic dimeter to speed up our reading of the poem, reflecting the swift-footedness of ‘Nimble’ Lawra and the poem’s meaning that ‘Time can conquer’. Campion shows a similar awareness of metrical power in his poem ‘Follow your Saint’, in which the first two lines begin with imperative trochaic feet (‘Follow’ and ‘Haste you’) for emphasis, but then fall into iambics towards the line ends. Perhaps, when Campion writes ‘Haste you, sad noates, fall at her flying feete’ he is commenting on the difference between the poetic feet he is using: the first two feet are trochaics (falling feet) and they are thus ‘sad noates’ which must ‘fall’, whereas the Saint’s are ‘flying feete’ and thus iambic (rising feet). Hence, it’s clear that Campion is using his metrical pattern to reflect the matter of his verse. Rhyme can be used in a similarly mimetic way: in ‘Madrigal V’, Drummond begins with high-pitched rhymes like ‘bring’ and ‘king’ but ends with the rhyming couplet: ‘Late having deckt with beauty’s rose his tomb, / Disdains to crop a weed, and will not come.’ The fall to a much lower-pitched rhyme here suggests a settling into a sorrow of acceptance at the poem’s end.

This skilled use of metrical variation was best employed by the Elizabethan playwrights, notably Marlowe and Shakespeare. For example, Faustus’s final soliloquy shows a collapse of regular iambic pentameter to reflect the character’s mind state of horror and impending doom. He exclaims: ‘Oh, I’ll leap up to my God: who pulls me down? / See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament. / One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!’ These lines contain extra syllables and the iambic rhythms seem to have completely vanished, with ‘See, see, where Christ’s blood streams’ arguably having five stresses in just six syllables. Thus, Marlowe uses variation and the collapse of metre to suggest his tragic hero’s panic in this poignant scene. As Hurley and O’Neill comment, we see Faustus in extremis, ‘the author’s manipulation of the line’ making ‘the reader feel’ and making stresses ‘obey the dictates of the voice’s urgencies.’ There is a similar breakdown in Hamlet’s ‘Oh what a rogue’ soliloquy in which he exclaims, ‘For Hecuba!’ This exclamation is set on its own line, breaking up the metre entirely. Likewise, fuelled by fury, his words break loose from their metrical restraints when he cries: ‘Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! / O, vengeance! –’ And yet, the speech ends with a perfectly iambic rhyming couplet, to reflect Hamlet’s newfound sense of resolve: ‘The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.’

Thus, I have shown how poetic form, notably the verse’s visual presentation on the page and the use of metre and rhyme, was used in the Renaissance period not only to provide beautiful harmonies (though this was also a valid argument for these devices) but to present a proportionate whole, where various different aspects of a work come together to create and emphasize its various meanings. This awareness is evident not only in the poetry of the time, but also in the criticism, with Puttenham, Campion and Daniel all clearly concerned with how form ‘can give pleasure in itself and also, at best, deepen the meaning.’ This conjunction of manner and matter is what really creates beauty, as defined by De Re Aedificatoria: ‘the harmony and concord of all the parts achieved in such a manner that nothing could be added or taken away or altered except for the worse.’ Jonson expressed a similar sentiment when he defines a ‘strict and succinct style [as] that, where you can take away nothing without losse, and that losse to be manifest’. This is what the Renaissance and Elizabethan writers were working towards, and it was most certainly a noble aim. It was this aim that has shaped the poetics of today, and for that, if not for the great poetry they created in the process, we should be incredibly grateful.

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