By Dr Oliver Tearle
Below is our pick of some of the finest very short poems from the Renaissance. We’ve had to exclude several favourites, such as Tichborne’s Elegy and the anonymous song ‘Weep you no more sad fountaines’, since they are just a little too long for our self-imposed 14-line limit – but we had to draw the line somewhere, and the length of a traditional sonnet seems appropriate, given that that verse form flourished during the Renaissance.
We hope you enjoy these short Renaissance poems – where a link is provided in the title of the poem, click that to read the poem, although some of the shorter ones we’ve included in their entirety here.
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’.
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 …
One of the first sonnets written in English, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ was loosely based on an Italian sonnet by Petrarch, the first poet to make the sonnet form famous across Europe. Wyatt (1503-42) was at the court of Henry VIII. The poem may also have sprung from Wyatt’s own romantic entanglement with Anne Boleyn, who was also, of course, romantically involved with the King, Henry VIII.
We’ve compiled more of Wyatt’s best poems here.
2. Ben Jonson, ‘On My First Sonne’.
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy,
Seven yeeres thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day …
An elegy on the death of Jonson’s son Benjamin, this is a deeply touching poem about the loss of a child, written at a time when infant mortality was considerably higher than it is now.
Jonson says that his one sin was to entertain too many hopes for his son’s future. This is a ‘sinne’ (a twisting of ‘Sonne’: ‘On My First Sonne’), because the child’s fate, like everyone’s, is not in Jonson’s hands, but God’s: not up to his father but Our Father, he might say.
3. John Donne, ‘Death, Be Not Proud’.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee …
‘Death, be not proud’ is one of Donne’s finest and most widely praised poems, and certainly one of his greatest sonnets. Like much of Donne’s poetry it fuses religious and erotic imagery, bringing the physical and the metaphysical together. In this sonnet, Death is personified as a male braggart, like a soldier boasting of all the men he’s slain.
4. George Herbert, ‘A Wreath’.
A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise,
Of praise deservèd, unto Thee I give,
I give to Thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live …
‘A Wreath’ demonstrates George Herbert’s extraordinary technical proficiency as a poet, his sophisticated use of rhyme and poetic syntax, and his ability to reflect his religious devotion through powerful language and an extended ‘conceit’ or metaphor – here, that of the wreath, which uses a clever patterning technique to suggest the circularity and totality of the wreath as religious symbol.
5. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 31 from Astrophil and Stella.
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries …
‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st in the skies’: with this remarkable opening line, the 31st sonnet in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (c. 1582) – the first substantial sonnet sequence written in English – begins.
It’s an example of apostrophe – of addressing someone or something absent – which, in this case, is the moon. Sidney, reflecting on the hopeless love he feels for Penelope Rich (who could have been his wife, but he foolishly turned her down), wonders if the moon shares his lovesickness.
6. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds …
The final line of this dark and powerful sonnet by Shakespeare sums up the thrust of the poem: ‘Lilies that fester small far worse than weeds.’ This poem has attracted a great deal of commentary, but perhaps the simplest way to read it is as a comment on a beautiful lover’s ability to misuse those who love them,
7. Sir John Harington, ‘Of Treason’.
Sir John Harington (1560-1612) is best-remembered as the inventor of the flush toilet, but he also wrote poetry, including this memorable couplet about treason. Since this poem is so brief – the shortest in this rundown of the greatest short Renaissance poems – we’ve included it below:
Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.
8. Michael Drayton, ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’.
Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part.
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free …
One of the great ‘breaking-up’ poems, this sonnet was written by Michael Drayton, a Warwickshire poet born one year before Shakespeare. The poet tells his erstwhile lover that the best thing for them to do is to end their relationship, shake hands, and walk away – but there’s a twist…
9. Sir Henry Wotton, ‘Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife’.
Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) is not much read now, but he left behind this lovely little couplet, which we reproduce below:
He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him; liked it not, and died.
10. Lady Mary Wroth, Sonnet 37 from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.
Night, welcome art thou to my minde distrest,
Darke, heauy, sad, yet not more sad then I:
Neuer could’st thou find fitter company
For thine owne humour, then I thus opprest.
If thou beest darke, my wrongs still vnredrest
Saw neuer light, nor smallest blisse can spye:
If heauy ioy from me too fast doth hie,
And care out-goes my hope of quiet rest.
Then now in friendship ioyne with haplesse me,
Who am as sad and darke as thou canst be,
Hating all pleasure or delight of lyfe,
Silence, and griefe, with thee I best doe loue.
And from you three I know I can not moue,
Then let vs liue companions without strife.
(The poem is reproduced in full above.)
Lady Mary Wroth (1587-c.1652) was the first Englishwoman to write a substantial sonnet sequence. Not only that, but she was admired by her contemporaries, including the hard-to-please Ben Jonson. She was the grand-niece of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), who wrote the first long sonnet sequence in English, and learnt much from him about the art of sonnet-writing, as this poem demonstrates.
The poem reflects the blackest moods of depression, with the speaker wishing to join with the night, since they both embody darkness and are natural partners for each other. Scroll down to number 37 on the list linked to above to read this poem.
So there we have it: our pick of the ten best short Renaissance poems and lyrics. Are there are we haven’t included that you think should appear on our list?
Discover more classic poetry with our selection of the best classic epic poems, these short poems by female poets, and our pick of the best short love poems in English. We also recommend the excellent anthology The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse: 1509-1659 (Penguin Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, published by J. Chamberlain in 1812, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Lady Mary Wroth, artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.
Interesting collection of poetry from another time, I wonder how Renaissance folks would react if they could hear poetry from our day:)
A well chosen selection of work that pushed me a bit to grab hold of the langauge. Also a wonderful reminder that English is a language of transition. How well would any modern English speaker communicate in 1580!?
Thank you! And good point about the language shift. Hearing Shakespeare recited in the original pronunciation (or our best guess as to what that pronunciation would have been) was a real eye-opener (or ear-opener) there…
Thank you for sharing these – an entertaining and wide-ranging choice of interesting poems:)
Thanks – glad you enjoyed them. This was a fun list to compile! :)