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This article is about the changing canons of English poetry of the Renaissance (i.e. of the 16th and early 17th century).

Overview[edit | edit source]

While the canon has always been in some form of flux, it is only towards the late 20th century that concerted efforts were made to challenge the canon and the very concept of a canon. Questions that once did not even have to be made, such as where to put the limitations of periods, what geographical areas to include, what genres to include, what writers and what kinds of writers to include, are now central to writers of histories, anthology editors, curriculum designers, and individual teachers and learners. For example the customary exclusion of women writers has been successfully challenged over the last 20 years.

The canonical canon[edit | edit source]

Who some of the central figures of the Elizabethan canon are, has long been established. They are Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Donne. This list is so established that there seem to be few attempts to change it, simply because the cultural importance of these 6 is so great that even re-evaluations on grounds of literary merit has not dared to dislodge them from the curriculum. For this reason the challenges to the canon that have been made during the last century have mainly been concerned with the so-called "minor" poets.

This distinction between "major" and "minor" poets, and between "major" and "minor" works by individual poets, is one of the mainstays of the canonical tradition. Its aim can be summed up in the words of Francis Turner Palgrave who in The Golden Treasury aimed to pass over "extreme or temporary phases in style" in favour of "something neither modern, nor ancient, but true in all ages". This anachronistic ideal has curiously enough been prevalent throughout 200 years of literary history whose ostensible goal has been to describe the period.

Canons before the 20th century[edit | edit source]

Donne, Ben Jonson, and Spenser were major influences on 17th century poetry. Spenser was the primary English influence on John Milton; while Donne was imitated by the Metaphysical poets and Jonson by the Cavalier poets. Both Donne and Jonson influenced the leading poet of the late 17th century, John Dryden. However, Dryden condemned the Metaphysical tendency in his criticism. Metaphysical poetry fell further into disrepute in the 18th century,[1] while the interest in Renaissance verse was rekindled through the scholarship of Thomas Warton and others. The Lake Poets and subsequent Romantics were well-read in Renaissance poetry; Coleridge admired Donne, which is slightly unusual for this period. However, the canon of Renaissance poetry was formed only in the Victorian era, with anthologies like Palgrave's Golden Treasury. A fairly representative idea of the "Victorian canon" is given by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse (1919). The poems from this period are largely songs; apart from the major names, one sees the two pioneers Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, and a scattering of poems by other writers of the period. The dominant figure is Anonymous. Some poems, such as Thomas Sackville's Induction to the Mirror for Magistrates, were highly regarded (and therefore "in the canon") but omitted as non-lyric.

The canon was also redistributed after Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy from 1860 formulated a view of the Renaissance as an aristocratic court culture. Consequently, later anthologies such as Arthur Symons's A Sixteenth-Century Anthology from 1905 focused on lyric poetry at the expense of other genres, a preference which remained throughout the 1st half of the 20th century.[2]

Eliot's changes to the canon[edit | edit source]

T.S. Eliot's many essays on Elizabethan subjects were mainly concerned with the drama, but there are attempts to bring back long-forgotten poets to general attention, for example Sir John Davies, whose cause he championed in an article in theTimes Literary Supplement in 1926 (republished in On Poetry and Poets, 1957). Eliot's writing did much to bring the metaphysical poets, Donne in particular, back into favour.

Yvor Winters's Alternative Canon of Elizabethan poetry[edit | edit source]

In 1939 American critic Yvor Winters suggested an alternative canon of Elizabethan poetry[3]. In this canon he excludes the famous representatives of the Petrarchan school of poetry, such as Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and instead turns his eye to a Native or Plain Style anti-Petrarchan movement, which he claims has been overlooked and undervalued. The most underrated member of this movement he deems to have been George Gascoigne (1525–1577), who "deserves to be ranked...among the six or seven greatest lyric poets of the century, and perhaps higher"[4]. Other members were Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618), Thomas Nashe (1567–1601), Barnabe Googe (1540–1594), and George Turberville (1540–1610).

Characteristic of this movement is that a poem has "a theme usually broad, simple, and obvious, even tending toward the proverbial, but usually a theme of some importance, humanly speaking; a feeling restrained to the minimum required by the subject; a rhetoric restrained to a similar minimum, the poet being interested in his rhetoric as a means of stating his matter as economically as possible, and not, as are the Petrarchans, in the pleasures of rhetoric for its own sake. There is also in the school a strong tendency towards aphoristic statement"[5].

This attempt at rewriting a canon should not be seen as a challenge to the concept of the canon as such, but rather as an attempt to emulate T S. Eliot's modernist revisions of the tradition. As with Eliot's canon, it may for today's reader say more about Winters and his time than about Elizabethan literature, but the list of poems he names among the best should still be of interest to the student who has already read the established, "Petrarchan," canon.

Winters compares the situation in Renaissance studies with that of the canon of 18th century poets, where he claims that "the two greatest poetic talents of the period, those of Samuel Johnson and of Charles Churchill," were obscured by the rising Romantic school and such poets as Thomas Gray and William Collins. (The poems he mentions by Johnson and Churchill have been added to the list below).

An alternative canon[edit | edit source]

These are some of the poems Winters recommends (in general the ones Winters considers to be the best are put first).

From the anti-Petrarchan school:

  • Sir Thomas Wyatt: "Tagus Farewell", "Is it possible", "I abide and abide", "They flee from me", "It may be good", "Your looks so often cast", "Disdain me not", "Perdie I said it not", "If thou wilt mightly be", "I have sought long", "And wilt thou leave me thus", "It was my choice", "Forget not yet", "What should I say", "Hate whom ye list", "Sighs are my food", "Madam withouten many words", "Within my breast I never thought it gain", "It burneth yet, alas!", "Speak thou and speed", "Under this stone" (5, See also under the Petrarcan school below).
  • Thomas, Lord Vaux: "I loath that I did love", "When I look back", "When all is done and said".
  • Nicholas Grimald: "Mirror of matrons".
  • George Gascoigne: "Gascoigne's Woodmanship", "Gascoigne's De Profundis", "Gascoigne's Memories" II and III, "The Constancy of a Lover", "Dan Bartholomew's Dolorous Discourses" (from Dan Bartholomew of Bath), "In Praise of a Gentlewoman Who though She Was not very Fair Yet Was She as Hard-Favored as Might Be" (1).
  • Barnabe Googe: "Of Nicholas Grimald", "To Dr. Balle", "To Mistress A.", "To the Translation of Palingenius", "Of Mistress D. S.", "Of Money", "Coming Homeward Out of Spain".
  • George Turberville: "To the Roving Pirate", "To One that Had Little Wit", "To an Old Gentlewoman Who Painted Her Face", "Of the Clock and the Cock", "That All Things Are as They Are Used".
  • Sir Walter Raleigh: "The Lie", "What is our life", "Even such is time" (2).
  • Jasper Heywood: "My friend if thou wilt credit me in ought".
  • Thomas Nashe: "In Time of Pestilence", "Autumn hath all the fruitful summer's treasure".

From the Petrarchan school (excluding those in footnotes):

  • Sir Thomas Wyatt: "My lute, awake", "All heavy minds", "Comfort thyself", "Lo what it is to love", "Leave then to slander love", "Ah, my heart, what aileth thee", and "Whoso list to hunt" (as the only interesting sonnet) (2). In many ways, however, Wyatt's poems might be - and were by Winters - classified as Native Style.
  • Sir Fulke Greville: "Down in the depths of my iniquity", Sonnets i, vii, xii, xxii, xliv, lii, xliv, lii, lvi from Caelica, Epitaph to Sidney. Greville's poems migrated chronologically from the Petrarchan to the Plain Style to religious meditation.
  • Sir Philip Sidney: "Who hath his fancy pleased", "Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes entendeth", "Only joy, now here you are", "O you that hear this voice", "Who is it that this dark night", "The nightingale as soon as April bringeth", "Ring out your bells", "What tongue can her perfection tell" , sonnets xxxi, xxxix, xli, lxxiv, lxxxiv, xcviii, xcix, cv, cix, cx from Astrophel and Stella (10, all from Astrophel and Stella).
  • Thomas Morley: "Ladies, you see time flieth", "No, no, Nigella!".
  • Samuel Daniel: "Beauty, sweet love".
  • William Shakespeare: Sonnets 66, 116, 129, 146 (4).
  • Thomas Campion: "Now winter nights enlarge", "When thou must home to shades of underground", "Shall I come, sweet love, to thee", "Sleep, angry beauty", "There is a garden in her face", "Thou art not fair for all thy red and white", What then is love but morning", "Whether men do laugh or weep" (3).
  • Ben Jonson: "To Heaven", "Though beauty be the mark of praise", "Where dost thou careless lie", "High-spirited friend", "From death and dark oblivion, near the same", "False world, good night", "Good and Great God, can I not think of Thee", "To draw no envy, Shakespeare, on thy name", "This morning, timely rapt with holy fire", To Charis I & II, "The Hour Glass", "My Picture Left in Scotland", "Joy, joy to mortals the rejoicing fires" from Love's Triumph Through Callipolis, "Drink to me only with thine eyes", "Come, my Celia", "Queen and huntress, chaste and fair" (6). But Winters classified much of Jonson's best work as of the Plain Style ("My Picture Left in Scotland," "On His First Son").
  • John Donne: "Valediction of His Name in a Window", "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", Holy Sonnet No. 1 (2).
  • Anonymous: "Come away, come, sweet love" (from England's Helicon).

Winters also mentions these poems from the 18th century as the best of that century:

Canons today[edit | edit source]

Both Eliot and Winters were very much in favour of the canon as such and they let its timeless ideals go uncommented. Towards the end of the 20th century however, the canon was increasingly under fire, both by those who wished to expand it to include for example women writers, and by those who wished to abolish it altogether.

Some anthologies[edit | edit source]

The preface to the Blackwell anthology of Renaissance Literature from 2003 acknowledges the importance of online access to literary texts on the selection of what to include, meaning that the selection can be made on basis of functionality rather than representativity"[6]. This anthology has made its selection based on three principles. One is "unabashedly canonical", meaning that Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson have been given the space prospective users would expect. A second principle is "non-canonical", giving women writers such as Anne Askew, Elizabeth Cary, Emilia Lanier, Martha Moulsworth, and Lady Mary Wroth a representative selection. It also includes texts that may not be representative of the qualitatively best efforts of Renaissance literature, but of the quantitatively most numerous texts, such as homilies and erotica. A third principle has been thematic, so that the anthology aims to include texts that bring light on issues of special interest to contemporary scholars.

The Blackwell anthology is still firmly organised around authors, however. A different strategy has been observed by The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse from 1992"[7]. Here the texts are organised according to topic, under the headings The Public World, Images of Love, Topographies, Friends, Patrons and the Good Life, Church, State and Belief, Elegy and Epitaph, Translation, Writer, Language and Public. It is arguable that such an approach is more suitable for the interested reader than for the student. While the two anthologies are not directly comparable, since the Blackwell anthology also includes prose, and the Penguin goes up to 1659, it is telling that while the larger Blackwell anthology contains work by 48 poets, 7 of which are women, the Penguin anthology contains 374 poems by 109 poets, including 13 women and 1 poet each in Welsh Siôn Phylip and Irish Eochaidh Ó Heóghusa.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Life of Cowley," in Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets
  2. David Norbrook. Preface to The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509–1659. London: Penguin Books, 2005: xxiii
  3. Poetry, LII (1939), 258-272, excerpted in Paul. J. Alpers (ed): Elizabethan Poetry. Modern essays in criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. Print.
  4. Poetry, LII (1939, pp. 258-72, excerpted in Paul. J. Alpers (ed): Elizabethan Poetry. Modern Essays in Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967: 98
  5. Poetry, LII (1939, pp. 258-72, excerpted in Paul. J. Alpers (ed): Elizabethan Poetry. Modern Essays in Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967: 95
  6. Michael Payne & John Hunter (eds). Renaissance Literature: an anthology. Oxford: Blackell, 2003, ISBN 0-631-19897-0: xix
  7. David Norbrook & H. R. Woudhuysen (eds.): The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse. London: Penguin Books, 1992, ISBN 0-14-042346-X

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