I thought I’d share my five favourite Early Modern / Renaissance poems today. I love this era of literature and I adore the poetry that it produced. I’m just going to quickly explain why I love each poem and provide the first verse of each poem (or the whole poem in the case of a sonnet).
All title links take you to free online versions of the poems. All book cover images link you to Goodreads.
EVEN as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek’d Adonis hied him to the chase;
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-faced suitor ‘gins to woo him.
I love Shakespeare’s take on the classic myth of Venus and Adonis (or Aphrodite and Adonis) and this poem is full of erotic references and beautiful symbolism. It’s also rather shocking and the love that Shakespeare represents is almost repulsive in its obsessive nature. Shakespeare was a master of language and Venus and Adonis really highlights this.
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
I’m currently re-reading Paradise Lost and it’s a masterpiece. John Milton, although much later than the other poets I’m mentioning, encaptures the spirit of Renaissance reimagining as he tells the story of the Fall of Man with Lucifer, aka the Devil, being one of the major characters. Also, this poem is where we get the famous quote ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ from.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”
Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella is some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever read. The title of the series derives from the two Greek words, ‘aster’ (star) and ‘phil’ (lover), and the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star. Stella is the star and Astrophil is the lover of the star. There are some arguments about whether or not the sonnets are written to a woman that Sidney loved but either way they’re stunning. There are 108 sonnets and 11 songs in the sequence and I love them all.
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses having slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithful loves shall moralize my song.
I love this epic poem so much. Standing at 6 books the poem was left incomplete after Spenser died. It’s dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I and she adored the poem. It borrows features from Medieval mythology and it even considers the descent into hell which other writers such as Virgil, Dante, and Thomas Kyd explore. Spenserian stanza was first seen during this poem which has been used by other poets such as Lord Byron and John Keats.
I’ve had the privilege of working with a 1596 edition of this beautiful poem.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
Finally, I’ve included my favourite poem ever. It’s an odd poem to love by Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote this poem for Anne Boleyn, with whom he was supposedly having an affair, and the symbolism is amazing. Poetry was very much a public thing during this period and so it’s probable that the whole court, including Henry VIII, read this poem and understood it. Wyatt was imprisoned for committing adultery with Anne Boleyn but he was released, unlike the other men who were accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn who were executed. It’s just fascinating and the poem is so clever.