The best short English poems from the Renaissance
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.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’. 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.)
Ben Jonson, ‘On My First Sonne’. 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.
John Donne, ‘Death, Be Not Proud’. ‘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.
George Herbert, ‘A Wreath’. ‘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.
Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 31 from Astrophil and Stella. ‘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.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94. 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,
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.
Michael Drayton, ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’. 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…
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.
Lady Mary Wroth, Sonnet 37 from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. 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).