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A Brief But Enjoyable History Of Poetry Part 2

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

In the last post where we discussed the very early history of poetry, we travelled from the ancient epic poems dating back several thousand years to the end of the Renaissance and the start of arrival of poetry into England.

We are about to enter the Golden era of great British writers, who will change the poetic landscape forever.

Inspired by the Renaissance poets of Europe, Geoffrey Chaucer, born in 1343, began writing his enduring body of incredible work seemingly whilst juggling a rather hectic social and political life. He also didn't write about the ordinary world around him, like many of his peers had done, but instead chose to create a fantasy world of interesting characters and wild adventures. Chaucer wrote in a wide range of poetic forms and was something of a maverick when it came to the written form.

I personally had a bad experience in the sixth form at school, at the hands of a rather heavy handed english literature teacher who attempted to bludgeon us to death with Chaucer, metaphorically I hasten to add - although he did physically throw a Chaucer book across the classroom at me once.

Chaucer's use of language can be hard to grasp; although now in the calming wisdom of adulthood, away from the sixth form classroom, I can appreciate his mastery much more now.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;

The next big name on the poetry scene is Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt was born in 1503 and travelled extensively throughout his life, picking up inspiration of the poetic form along the way. Fascinated by reinvention of the different forms of poetry at the time, it would be with great honour I imagine that he is best remembered for introducing the sonnet form to English Literature.

A sonnet is derived from the Italian word sonetto which means a small lyric. In poetry, a sonnet has 14 lines, and is written in iambic pentameter, which means that each line has 10 syllables. An example of Wyatt's sonnets is:

Unstable dream, according to the place,
Be steadfast once, or else at least be true;
By tasted sweetness make me not to rue
The sudden loss of thy false feigned grace.
By good respect in such a dangerous case,
Thou broughtest not her into this tossing mew,
But madest my sprite live, my care to renew,
My body in tempest her succour to embrace.
The body dead, the sprite had his desire,
Painless was th' one, th' other in delight.
Why then, alas, did it not keep it right,
Returning, to leap into the fire?
And where it was at wish, it could not remain,
Such mocks of dreams they turn to deadly pain.

Hot on the heels of Wyatt was a man whose name in many ways represents the English language itself. William Shakespeare is undoubtedly the most famous writer in the history of the World. Shakespeare wasn't exclusively a poet, he was a writer of plays predominantly and a respected master of every form he chose to work with. Shakespeare was a prolific writer, he wrote 38 plays, 2 narrative poems, 154 sonnets and other poems besides. His plays are still famous all over the World - Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet to name but a few - but as we are specifically dealing with the history of poetry, then it is Shakespeare's sonnets that as a poet he is best known for and so what we should focus upon.

Shakespeare wrote his sonnets on a wide variety of themes, although it isn't clear when or where he wrote them. Although he inherited the basic form from Thomas Wyatt, like everything Shakespeare did, he played creatively with the form and made it his own. Perhaps Sonnet 18 below is one of his most famous sonnets.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

And so we take our brief leave of the history of poetry at this time, changed forevermore by one man, William Shakespeare. His influence will be forever felt in everything that comes hereafter.

In the next part of the journey we will meet Alexander Pope, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and encounter some of the more modern names you might know, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot.


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