Chaucer, most celebrated as the author of The Canterbury Tales, is credited with bringing poetry to the English language at a time when most was written in either Latin or French. His tales are well written, sometimes bawdy, often amusing, and always reflect close observation of the society of the time. The ten syllable line he used for most of his work became the norm for English poetry following him, and was taken up later by both Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.
Edmund Spenser (1552 - 1599)
Edmund Spenser's poetic achievement was considerable. His mastery of poetic forms was thrilling. Any serious critical exposition of his aims or of the allegorical meanings to be found rampant in his writings is guaranteed to impress and inspire. He was, one supposes, as great a poet as Shakespeare, possibly greater, and yet.... and yet as Thomas Babbington Macaulay observes: 'One unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness pervades the whole of the Faerie Queen. We become sick of Cardinal Virtues and Deadly Sins, and long for the society of plain men and women'. What we offer here is something less ambitious, and more palatable, and demonstrates a better balance between the real and the imaginery, flesh and blood and symbols.
Selection from Epithalamium
One day I wrote her name
Walter Raleigh (c1553 - 1618)
Predominantly a man of action, Raleigh nevertheless had literary pretensions, and produced, during his years of incarceration in the Tower of London between 1603 and 1616, a History of the World running to a million words. He also produced occasional poetry. The occasion of the poem included here was his execution in 1618.
Today a man, tomorrow none
Robert Greene (c1558 - 1592)
Best known for his commentary on Shakespeare as an 'upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scenen in a countrey', Greene also wrote many pamphlets about London low-life, indulged in long-running abuse by pamphlet with other writers, most notably Gabriel Harvery, and some plays, leading one critic to hail him as the first professional writer. He married early, but left his wife in the counrty while he spent her money in London, taking the sister of a noted villain for his mistress. He called the ensuing child 'Infortunatus', and, on his death, sent him to his wife in the country to raise, along with a request to pay the messenger ten pounds that he owed him. There is no doubt, however, that he had a certain literary ability, as this little poem of remorse attests.
Greene's Farewell to Folly
Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593)
Precocious genius, the son of a Canterbury cobbler who happened upon a good education more or less by chance, Marlowe was recruited to the secret service, which became an important part of government activities during the reign of Elisabeth I under the direction of William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Thomas Walsingham. It was a dangerous game to play, and Marlowe paid the price in 1593 when his life was cut short by the knife of Ingram Frizer at the house of Eleanor Bull in Deptford. His plays and poetry are only equalled by those of Shakespeare. We can only regret his early death.
The passionate shepherd to his love
Hero and Leander
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
John Heminges and Henry Condel, two of the players in the same troupe as Shakespeare, write of him: '... he was a happie imitator of Nature, (and) ... a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our province, who onely gather his works, and give them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him'. A marvellous tribute to a truly great writer and somebody they clearly considered to be a good friend.
Fear No More
Sonnet CVII - William Shakespeare
Over Hill, Over Dale
Full Fathom Five
Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind
John Donne (1572 - 1631)
John Donne's complex life is reflected in the complexity of his poetry. He was a Catholic in England at a time when practising the Catholic faith had become a treason, and punishable by death. His brother had died in prison, and the priest with whom he had been caught had been hanged, drawn and quartered. His uncles had fled the country. He nevertheless got himself a good job, as secretary to Thomas Egerton, but made the mistake of seducing his employer's niece, for which he was thrown out of his job, though he kept the niece. The poems reproduced here represent a part of his output of love poetry, which demonstrate a fascinating mix of metaphysics and sex. His other poetry, which is a mix of metaphysics and more metaphysics, is somewhat harder to appreciate, though some of his sermons (he was eventually persuaded into the Anglican church by King James I) are memorable.
To His Mistress Going to Bed
The Sun Rising
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