Literature

The Best Sixteenth-Century Poems Everyone Should Read

The sixteenth century saw the sonnet arrive in England, and with that, the sonnet sequence that would lead to Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets about the ‘Fair Youth’ and ‘Dark Lady’. It was also the age of satirical poetry in the form of John Skelton’s poems, and narrative poetry – even epic poetry – which culminated in Edmund Spenser’s vast poem The Faerie Queene. Below, we select, and introduce, ten of the very best sixteenth-century poems written in English.

John Skelton, ‘Speke Parott’. Skelton (c. 1463-1529) was King Henry VIII’s tutor, and he was also one of the first great satirical poets writing in English – his poem ‘Colyn Cloute’, for instance, was an attack on the clergy which also took aim specifically at Cardinal Wolsey. In ‘Speke Parott’ (i.e. ‘Speak, Parrot’), Skelton satirises a fashionable new type of courtier who arrived in King Henry’s court, fluent in several languages and eager to parrot trendy views and attitudes (hence ‘parrot’):

My name is Parrot, a byrd of Paradyse,
By Nature devised of a wonderowus kynde,
Deyntely dyeted with dyvers dylycate spyce,
Tyl Euphrates, that flode, dryveth me into Inde;
Where men of that countrey by fortune me fynde,
And send me to greate ladyes of estate;
Then Parot must have an almon or a date.

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.

Henry Howard, ‘Set Me Whereas the Sun Doth Parch the Green’. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47) invented the English sonnet form, adapting the Italian form (used by Wyatt above) and rhyme scheme to create the blueprint that Shakespeare, among many others, would later use. In this sonnet, Surrey adapts an Italian poem written by Petrarch, and essentially says, ‘Put me wherever you like, in the warmest sun, in youth or in old age, in earth, heaven, or hell, but I’ll still love you the same’.

Anne Locke, ‘My many sinnes in nomber are encreast’. The largely forgotten figure of Anne Locke (c. 1530-c. 1590) wrote the first sonnet sequence in English – an important development in sixteenth-century English poetry. As we discuss in our book about obscure and forgotten books, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, Locke was not only the first Englishwoman to write a sonnet sequence, but the first English poet of either gender to do so. A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, appended to a translation of John Calvin’s sermons which Locke published in 1560, was written two decades before Sir Philip Sidney wrote Astrophil and Stella, which is often named as the first English sonnet sequence. As the title of Locke’s sonnet cycle reveals, her poems take sin and penitence as their predominant themes, and the following poem – given in the original spelling – shows that, although Locke was taking her cue from Psalm 51 in these sonnets, she was a fine poet who made masterly use of the relatively recent arrival in English poetry, the sonnet. Locke uses the English sonnet form pioneered by Henry Howard above.

My many sinnes in nomber are encreast,
With weight wherof in sea of depe despeire
My sinking soule is now so sore opprest,
That now in peril and in present fere,
I crye: susteine me, Lord, and Lord I pray,
With endlesse nomber of thy mercies take
The endlesse nomber of my sinnes away.
So by thy mercie, for thy mercies sake,
Rue on me, Lord, releue me with thy grace.
My sinne is cause that I so nede to haue
Thy mercies ayde in my so woefull case:
My synne is cause that scarce I dare to craue
Thy mercie manyfolde, which onely may
Releue my soule, and take my sinnes away.

Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Loving in Truth’. One of the best poems about writing poetry, this sonnet, written in alexandrines or twelve-syllable lines, opens Sidney’s great sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, a sequence of 108 sonnets – and a few songs – inspired by Sidney’s unrequited love for Penelope Rich, who was offered to him as a potential wife a few years before. Sidney turned her down, she married Lord Robert Rich, and Sidney (pictured right) promptly realised he was in love with her. In this sonnet, Sidney searches for the best way to marshal his feelings and put them into words that will move ‘Stella’.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene. Spenser completely only just over half of his projected plan for his vast epic poem, written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and to offer a sort of mythology for England, with its use of Arthurian legend and Red-Cross Knights. The poem also extols a number of Christian virtues.

Christopher Marlowe, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’. This is Christopher Marlowe’s most widely anthologised and best-known poem (he also wrote plays, including The Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus, which would influence Shakespeare’s early plays). A classic of the pastoral tradition of English poetry, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ begins:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals…

William Shakespeare, ‘Venus and Adonis’. Here’s another pastoral poem, but a narrative rather than a lyric this time: Shakespeare tells us the story of the goddess Venus, who loves (and tries repeatedly to seduce) the beautiful youth Adonis, who’d rather spend his time hunting than lovemaking:

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…

William Shakespeare, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’. As well as narrative poems like the above, Shakespeare also wrote 154 sonnets exploring the drama (even psychodrama) of his relationships with a young man and a married woman.

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…

This is where Shakespeare’s Sonnets start to get interesting, after the opening sequence of 17 ‘Procreation Sonnets’. Boasting one of the most famous opening lines in all of English verse, Sonnet 18 shows that Shakespeare is already sure that his poetry will guarantee the young man his immortality after all.

John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’. In this poem, the master of metaphysical poetry John Donne chastises the sun for peeping through the curtains in the morning and disturbing him and his lover from sleep, rousing them from their beds and telling them to get up. Note the way Donne takes the idea of being blinded by staring at the sun and turns it on its head, saying that if the sun may well be blinded by looking upon the eyes of his beloved – they’re that dazzling and beautiful. This poem is an early example of metaphysical poetry and a fine note on which to conclude our pick of classic sixteenth-century poems.

Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poemsshort poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse: 1509-1659 (Penguin Classics) – perhaps the best anthology of sixteenth-century verse available.

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