The first great age of English language was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-
1603) in England. Named after the monarch, the Elizabethan age, produced some of the
biggest marvels of English Literature in history. The influence of Italy, France and Spain
on English literature continued in this age.
Drama, novels and poetry all enjoyed a golden age of literature along with fine arts,
science and philosophy. However, Poetry, together Drama, emerged as the most popular
William Shakespeare, Edmund Spencer, Philip Sydney, Walter Raleigh, Christopher
Marlowe, etc are some of the poetic luminaries of the age.
Here are its main characteristics:
The sonnet form, which became the dominant form of poetry and was preferred style of
Shakespeare himself (168 sonnets). Lyric, descriptive and narrative poetry also came
into popular usage.
Shakespeare created a new kind of sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet (English sonnet).
This was different than the more widespread form, the Petrarchan sonnet (brought from
Italy by Thomas Wyatt etc.). Elizabethan sonnets have an iambic pentameter and
consist of 14 lines with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. These are called three
quatrains and a couplet.
In Petrarchan form, there are 14 lines of iambic pentameter divided into the “octet” or
the first 8 lines and the “sestet” (the next six). There is a turn or “volta,” between the
octet and sestet. Here the poet gives a different perspective or argument and it occurs
between the octet and the sestet.
Sometimes the turn is reserved for the final couplet like William Shakespeare’s sonnet
Edmund Spenser, also called the father of poetic diction (English), wrote the famous
poems The Fairie Queen which introduced the Spenserian stanza consisting of 8 iambic
pentameter lines followed by an alexandrine(iambic hexameter) with ABABBCBCC
The socio-political life of the time was revitalized by the exploits of Renaissance and
poetry also reflected that. The classical texts were heavily relied on for inspiration and
themes. Ideas of patriotism, nationalism, freedom, free speech, humanism, dominated
the literary space.
In stark contrast to Chaucer’s age, this age was embellished with the notions of grand
romances, exorbitant metaphors, experimentation and innovation. Aggrandizement of
love was the most visible notion that captivated he poets of the age like Ben Jonson’s To
The age also witnessed an amalgamation of classical myth like Greek etc and English
tales of elves and fairies. This gave a boost to poplar fictional elements as well.
Other topics exploited by poets were political life, war and conflict, nature of life, the
duality of man etc.
Blank verse was the meter of choice for adding more drama to the text. It freed the poets
from the clutches of making everything rhyme. It was used profusely in drama as well by
the likes of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe and survived far beyond the
Elizabethan era with the works like John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and William
Language was rich with grand narratives and heroic tales. The writing was evocative,
palliative and flowery.
Clever wordplay, alliteration and metaphors were commonly deployed. The age is
renowned for its bewitching lyrics like Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella or
Shakespeare’s poems like Venus and Adonis.
Double Entendres were the most adored device of the Elizabethan poets. It comprises of
words or phrases with dual meanings, a benign explicit meaning and an implicit
secondary one which was more sensual.
The use of grandiose affectations like 'conceit' was also popular to add more intrigue and
suspense to the narrative. There was also a conscious appropriation of the past with use
of archaisms, old syntax, and obscure spellings. This created a sense of old glory and
**Beginning of the metaphysical poetry…
At the far end of the Elizabethan age and the start of Jacobean age a group called
metaphysical poets became famous with the use of stark imagery in place if musical
lyrics of the previous age.
John Donne popularized the metaphysical poetry early in the 17th Century. His religious
poetry had dramatic realism, colloquialism and direct speech. George Herbert, Henry
Vaughan, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell were later poets influenced by Dunne’s
work and made progressive contribution to this genre of poetry.