“History, however, shows no great progressive movement unaccompanied by exaggerations and extravagances.” – A History of English Literature by Robert Huntington Fletcher
When I hear the word Renaissance, I think of powdered wigs, exaggerated collars and pantaloons. Images of Renaissance Faires play like a slide-show through my mind, I crave turkey legs and nearly feel the tightening of a corset. In actuality, the Renaissance was a freeing time for humanity rather than wholly constricting. The word Renaissance, translated to English from French, means rebirth.
In times of upheaval, the creative arts seem to suffer most. During the shift between the Middle Age and the Renaissance, a span of a century passed without new advances in poetry. I think it is an unwritten law that poets will always exist but the poets of the 1500s did not offer new insights to the craft or language. Instead, they seemed bent on mimicking Chaucer’s great voice and works, attempting to piggy-back on his success. In a way, it is understandable. The fifteenth century was a time of change, a time where the Middle Age was suffering a painful death, Church and State were under siege and an underground intellectual movement was gaining momentum.
Four great events happened over the change of centuries that ushered in the next movement in literature. These events were the invention of printing, the revival of classical learning, the discovery of America and the Protestant Reformation. Although I cannot go into the details of any one of these events in this article, each alone is incredibly complex but when combined, they make for a powerful force, powerful enough to put the Middle Age cleanly into the past and usher forward the rebirth.
The movement to revive classical learning has its roots in Italy where scholars revisited the works of the ancient Greeks and discovered the inspiration that had been absent. After centuries of being stifled by the Church as the sole source of knowledge and understanding, these writings freed scholars in the sense that the human mind knows no boundaries, a freedom of thought that had been suppressed. This sparked the Humanist movement that allowed renewed emphasis to life in the present world instead of solely focusing on spiritual contemplation as was practiced in the Middle Ages.
“Vergil and Cicero were regarded no longer as mysterious prophets from a dimly imagined past, but as real men of flesh and blood, speaking out of experiences remote in time from the present but no less humanly real.”
As this is a poetry group, I can’t allow myself to venture too deeply into history (although I am tempted) without keeping tabs on the literary aspects of the Renaissance. I believe that at this point, you have hints of the labor pains of the rebirth and can sense their importance in the great literary shift between Middle Ages and the Renaissance Movement.
The poem and the drama were both dominant in English literature during the Renaissance. Sixteenth century poetry included the lyric, elegy, tragedy and pastoral forms, usually ostentatious, repetitive, and infused with subtle wit. “Conventions played a large part in how particular poetic styles were manifested. Expectations about style, subject matter, tone, and even plot details were well-established for each poetic genre. Even the specific occasion demanded a particular form of poetry, and these tried and true conventions were tacitly understood by all.” Despite the influence of conventions, poets experimented with forms, combining themes and creating new methods of expression.
During the English Renaissance, John Milton composed his epic Paradise Lost, widely considered the grandest poem in the language. This epic poem was written in blank verse, poetry written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, tells the biblical story of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve in language that is an astonishing achievement of rhythm and sound. One of Milton’s most effective character representations in Paradise Lost is his sympathetic portrayal of Satan, essentially placing Satan in a potentially heroic position. However, in the following excerpt, Milton counters this proposition in defining his epic poem as a teodicy or a “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil” (Merriam-Webster 1223). In this dual purpose, he focused both on the literary aspects and the theological argument.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (17-26)
Just as I have to take care not to forget poetry in place of history, I am greatly underqualified to make theological arguments or debate. I will let William Blake’s infamous comment regarding Milton’s portrayal close the discussion regarding religious implications and ideals. “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (Blake 1433).
In closing, I want to thank the Italians for revisiting the ancient Greek texts, the underground movement for seeing us as humans with unique freedom of thought and expression, Milton for exercising his talent in astounding poetry, readers of this post for tolerating my temptations to stray from the primary purpose and dVerse for exposing me to opportunities to learn with every article. I am also grateful that I’m not wearing the attire of the Renaissance period.
July is too hot for wigs and corsets.
A History of English Literature by Robert Huntington Fletcher
Luxon, Thomas H., ed. The Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth College, July, 2013.