The Elizabethan era (1558-1603) was a golden age of English poetry, drama, and song-writing, with sonnets, madrigals, and pioneering plays all being produced. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest poems of the Elizabethan age. If these whet your appetite for more, we can highly recommend Elizabethan Lyrics edited by Norman Ault, a bumper collection of both famous and obscure Elizabethan songs and poems.
1. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene.
Probably the most ambitious of all Elizabethan-era poems, The Faerie Queene was written to honour Queen Elizabeth I, who is idealised as Gloriana in Edmund Spenser’s vast Arthurian Christian ‘fantasy’ epic, which remained only half-completed when he died in 1599 (and even the poem as we have it dwarfs just about every other poem in English). It begins:
2. Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Loving in Truth’.
The sonnet sequence really came into its own in English literature during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and its pioneer was one of Elizabeth’s courtiers, the soldier, statesman, poet, and all-round Renaissance man (in the truest sense of the phrase), Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86).
In this, the opening sonnet from his sequence Astrophil and Stella, Sidney – as ‘Astrophil’ tries to find inspiration so he can pay due tribute to the beauty of ‘Stella’, the woman he could have married but turned down, only to see her married to another (and then to realise that he loves her, after all)…
3. Chidiock Tichborne, ‘Elegy’.
One of the greatest Elizabethan elegies was written by one of Queen Elizabeth’s deadliest enemies: the Catholic conspirator Chidiock Tichborne is thought to have penned this elegy for himself in the Tower of London, the night before his execution in 1586. It begins:
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done …
4. Christopher Marlowe, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’.
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 …
‘Come live with me’ is an old line in lyric poetry stretching from ancient Rome to Heaven 17, but perhaps the poet who gave this sentiment the definitive treatment was Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). In ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’, Marlowe’s speaker sings the praises of a life in the countryside (as opposed to the town or city), in an attempt to win round his would-be beloved, whom he addresses.
5. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18.
With one of the most famous opening lines in all of English poetry, this poem is one of numerous gems among Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, which was first published in full in 1609 but probably written in the 1590s (the earliest sonnets were, at least). In the poem, Shakespeare addresses a Fair Youth, telling him that the young man will never grow old because the Bard’s poem immortalises him.
6. John Donne, ‘Song (Go and Catch a Falling Star)’.
Ault’s Elizabethan Lyrics notes that this poem was written before 1598, and so belongs to Donne’s earlier period (he wrote it when he was still in his early-to-mid-twenties). It’s one of Donne’s most cynical poems: the speaker of the poem argues that finding a woman who will remain faithful is as impossible as catching a falling star from the sky.
But like the Campion poem and the anonymous one later on this list, it’s meant to be sung and thus might be viewed as belonging to the same genre as many of Shakespeare’s songs from his plays.
7. George Gascoigne, ‘For That He Looked Not Upon Her’.
Gascoigne (c. 1535-77) is the most important stepping-stone between earlier Tudor poets, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (from the reign of Henry VIII) and the later Elizabethan poets such as Sir Philip Sidney. His most famous work was a 1572 collection bearing the snappy title A Hundreth Sundry Flowres bound up in one small Poesie. Gathered partely (by translation) in the fyne outlandish Gardins of Euripides, Ovid, Petrarch, Ariosto and others; and partly by Invention out of our owne fruitefull Orchardes in Englande, Yelding Sundrie Savours of tragical, comical and moral discourse, bothe pleasaunt and profitable, to the well-smelling noses of learned readers.
The poem we’ve selected is a ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet (published when Shakespeare was still in short trousers), and reads as remarkably modern, like many of Gascoigne’s poems.
8. Thomas Campion, ‘Hark, All You Ladies’.
Campion (1567-1620) was one of the most prolific composers of the Elizabethan age, and also one of the most celebrated, known far and wide for his madrigals. He wrote lyrics as well as music, such as this fine song from 1591:
Harke, al you Ladies that do sleep ;
The fayry queen Proserpina
Bids you awake and pitie them that weep.
You may doe in the darke
What the day doth forbid ;
Feare not the dogs that barke,
Night will haue all hid …
9. Anonymous, ‘Weep You No More, Sad Fountains’.
The author of this lyric is unknown, but the words were published in 1603, and it was set to music by the composer John Dowland. It’s an oft-anthologised song that, like many songs since, has an upbeat message (the speaker is enjoying watching his beloved sleeping) but can sound almost unbearably poignant when sung. It begins:
Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?
Look how the snowy mountains
Heaven’s sun doth gently waste.
But my sun’s heavenly eyes
View not your weeping,
That now lie sleeping
Softly, now softly lies
10. Queen Elizabeth I, ‘Ah, Silly Pug, Wert Thou So Sore Afraid’.
As this is a pick of the best Elizabethan lyrics, it seems fitting to end with a poem written by Queen Elizabeth I herself. This poem was inspired by Sir Walter Raleigh – ‘my Wat’ – who was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites at court.
But when Elizabeth appointed the Earl of Essex, her young new favourite, to a high position at court, Raleigh petitioned the Queen, worried that he was falling out of favour with her. In this poem, Elizabeth deftly seeks to reassure the great explorer of his place in her affections.
Ah, silly Pug, wert thou so sore afraid?
Mourn not, my Wat, nor be thou so dismayed.
It passeth fickle Fortune’s power and skill
To force my heart to think thee any ill …
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.