The Medieval Romance: A Relevant Structure

According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, a medieval romance is marked by structure, rather than style, because “romances classically have a tripartite structure: integration (or implied integration); disintegration; and reintegration” (Greenblatt 141). This structure is obvious in Sir Orfeo, the three elements apparent in Kind Orfeo’s transition from kingly status to ruin when he leaves his throne to recapture his wife, wandering the wilderness and becoming old, poor, and ragged, to final redemption when his wife and throne are returned to him. Though slightly less recognizable, this tripartite structure is also present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As a member of King Arthur’s court, at the poem’s beginning Gawain is fully integrated into his surrounding society, and this becomes especially evident when he steps up to play the Knight’s game in Arthur’s place. He fulfills the role of chivalrous hero, but when the Green Knight walks away from his beheading, Gawain becomes disintegrated because he is tasked to return to the Green Knight to receive a presumably lethal blow. But keeping in the conventions of a romance, the poem ends well with Gawain successfully completing all of the trials and returning to Arthur’s court.  Instead of the typical defeat, like Sir Orfeo defeating his wife’s captor, Gawain is successful because the Green Knight, who is also the lord of the castle, is impressed by Gawain’s true character.  Furthermore, Gawain does not necessarily feel like a hero, for when the Green Knight reveals his identity and his testing of Gawain, Gawain replies with, “And now I am found to be flawed and false, thought treachery and untruth I have totally failed . . . Such terrible mistakes, and I shall bear the blame. But tell me what it takes to clear my clouded name” (235). Gawain feels like a coward because he was afraid of death and therefore kept the green sash from the castle’s lord; however, the very traits that Gawain is ashamed of pleased the lord because Gawain’s only downfall is love of his life. These ironic twists of the knight code show variations in this romance, but despite these variations in content, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ultimately aligns with the criteria of a medieval romance because Gawain is reintegrated into the Arthurian society.

These three elements of romance are elements that many would say are integral for formation and maturity in people still today. Gawain returns to King Arthur as a more mature and well-rounded reintegrated member of society with an understanding of his own fears and weaknesses.  Sir Orpheo has experienced great loss and can return to rule his kingdom with great perspective.  Essentially, disintegration creates a better individual for re-integration. The Norton Anthology agrees, for the romance’s “deepest wisdom is this: civilization is not a unitary concept. To enter and remain in the world of civilized order, we must, say romances, have commerce with all that threatens it. To regain Rome at the center, we must first be tested in the marginal wilds of romance. To be recognized and found, we must first be lost” (141).  While I shy away from the concept of universals, I wonder if perhaps this is a truth that is still often true in today’s context. The romance uses the structure that frames many of our lives. We are born into our society, given a place because of our existence, but we face trials, questions of identity, faith crises, tragedy, loss, myriad challenging circumstances and we are disintegrated from our initial society. We wander through figurative wilderness seeking answers, we lose ourselves in our own circumstances, and we become estranged from what was once so familiar. But then we return, with fresh perspective, with experience, with victory, and we find our places once again.


Beowulf, Arrogance, and Christianity.

According to M.H. Abrams, an epic poem “is a long verse narrative on a serious subject, told in a formal and elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race” (107). Beowulf fits these criteria and can therefore be labeled an epic poem. It can be further classified as a “traditional epic” because it is a “written version of what had originally been [an] oral poem about a tribal or national hero during a warlike age” (107).  As both definitions relay, a single hero is fundamental to the formation of an epic, and a certain heroic code accompanies this hero. And while Beowulf is written within a pagan frameset, its hero still reflects traditional Christian values. An initial reading my lead the reader to suspect that Beowulf contradicts Christianity, but the poem alludes to God and wyrd and does not reference pagan deities (Greenblatt 37). Also, the many references to God hint to a monotheistic religion instead of a pagan pantheon. For example, before the first fight with Grendel, Beowulf asked, “may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit” (Greenblatt 55). This is only one of many times when allusions are made to God or Lord.  Additionally, there are many similarities between Beowulf and Christ. Beowulf’s speech before the fight, and especially the above line, is similar to Jesus praying in Gethsemane and asking for the Lord’s will to be done. While he often displays much hubris, ultimately his strength, cunning, and bravery, all elements of the heroic code, save Hrothgar’s kingdom. In other words, Beowulf is the only person capable of acting as a savior to these people.  Beowulf himself realizes this, saying “This fight is not yours,” again much like Christ realizing the role he had to play in redeeming humanity (95). And ultimately Beowulf sacrifices his life for his people’s safety, further support that Beowulf can be identified as a Christ-figure.
It seems, though, that the author creates many parallels between Christ and Beowulf, he or she also makes Beowulf’s humanity obvious, perhaps setting him up as an example of the dangers of arrogance.  Christ’s perfection is contrasted by Beowulf’s humanity, which leads him to make several unwise decisions because he is overconfident in his strength. Wiglaf speaks to this when he says, “Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt. This happened to us. Nothing we advised could ever convince the prince we loved, our land’s guardian, not to vex the custodian of the gold” (106). Even if the dragon was defeated, Beowulf’s actions did not, at least in Wiglaf’s opinion, better the people because they lost their beloved leader.  While these characteristics of pride and a refusal to listen do not align with Christian values, the author is obviously denouncing them, not espousing them, so it seems that ultimately the author is communicating Christian values.
In conclusion, the elements that make Beowulf an epic poem might seem to contradict Christianity. The idea that a single hero can save people through violence and revenge initially seems contrary to Jesus’ ministry of peace and love. However, when one realizes the overarching story pattern, the similarities between the hero archetype and Jesus, and the ways in which the author highlights Beowulf’s mistakes, it becomes clear that there is not, in fact, tension between Christianity and the values championed in Beowulf.  

Ideals of Heroism and Anglo-Saxon Battle Poetry

Anglo-Saxon battle poetry is characterized by several specific traits, all of which point to values idealized by the surrounding culture. One of these is strength, both mental and physical. “Judith” provides an excellent example of mental strength, as the titular protagonist defeats the wicked Holofernes by outsmarting him and his men. In Judith’s example, her mental strength defeats the physical strength of Holofernes’ army, but in other battle poetry, physical strength is key.  For example, the speaker of “The Battle of Brunanburh” says “We the West-Saxons/Long as the daylight/Lasted, in companies/Troubled the track of/The host that we hated; Grimly with swords that were sharp/from the grindstone/Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.” The speaker and his company needed physical strength to pursue and kill their enemies. Another characteristic to these battle poems is the role of a single, heroic leader. For example, Beowulf’s heroism and leadership becomes the solution when Hrothgar cannot keep his people safe.  And when Judith steps up as a leader for her people, her heroic actions are contrasted by Holofernes’ poor leadership ability, his drunkenness that ultimately leads to his downfall and the net surrounding his bed that delays his army. Not only are these characteristics common to all battle poetry, but they’re also set up as the ideal, and their opposites are ridiculed.  In “The Battle of Maldon,” “three who did not wish to be there” fled the battle, and the author shames them for leaving “more men than was in any way right, if they remembered all the favors he had done for their benefit” (5).  They are not just being shamed for their flight, however, but also for their disloyalty and for breaking the Anglo-Saxon code of avenging fallen comrades. In “Beowulf,” this code also contributes to the reader’s perception of Hrothgar as an inept leader, since he cannot avenge the deaths of his people by killing Grendel.

Ultimately, Anglo-Saxon sets up mental and physical strength, leadership abilities, loyalty and the ability to avenge as characteristics of a hero, and these ideals of heroism seem to stand side by side with the Anglo-Saxon understanding of Christianity.  With pagan religions of Vikings being in such close context, Christianity becomes part of the battle, and Christian heroism plays an important role as a defense mechanism against Viking paganism.  For this reason, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon battle poetry is often tied to the poem’s hero and the hero’s success, infused in a prayer before a battle or a victory speech afterwards. Furthermore, fighting in battle was portrayed as an act of  God,  vengeance a responsibility as a Christian. This is seen in “The Battle of Maldon,” when “the retainers began to fight hardily, fierce spear-bearers, and prayed God that they might avenge their patron and bring destruction to their enemies” (5). When these battles are given spiritual significance, martyrdom becomes an appealing aspect of Christianity because dying in battle, especially when avenging a comrade, is elevated to a defense of Christianity and straight passage to heaven.

Anglo-Saxon poetry was not only appealing because of the values it espoused but also because of its construction, marked by stressed syllables, alliteration, and half-lines separated by caesuras. These characteristics align with the oral nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as it was composed for recitation rather than for a written book of poetry. If poetry was only preserved in memory, these characteristics made it easier to remember. Another poetic characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry is kennings, or when two descriptive words are used instead of an actual name. Sometimes these kennings are simply used to paint a picture for the audience, like in “Judith” with the lines “but behind them flew/the eagle eager for food, dewy-winged/with dark plumage; the horn-beaked bird/sang a battle-song” (Greenblatt 114). “dewy-winged” and “horn-beaked” create a more elaborate image for a listening audience. Kennings also helped along the heroic ideals because of the substitution of descriptive, powerful, awe-inspiring words for single word nouns. All of these characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry worked together to make the poetry story-like and appealing to a listening, as opposed to a reading, audience. Moreover, ultimately the emphasis was placed on characteristics of the hero, like strength, courage, and loyalty, and these ideals were so emphasized that they were also rooted in Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

Renaissance and 17th Century essay questions

A.      Identify specific ways in which changes in composition of the audience, the economics of producing and making money from literature, and the technologies and means of dissemination for literature impacted the literature being written in the Renaissance and 17th century.  Focus on cause-effect and give some examples of the resulting impact.
With the Renaissance came not only a rebirth of the classics but also an emergence of new ideas, social, political, and economic, which impacted the literature being written in the Renaissance and 17th Century.  Accessibility to literature was limited, and “poetry in particular circulated in manuscript, copied by reader after reader into personal anthologies . . . or reproduced by professional scribes for a fee” (Greenblatt 547). Moreover, using writing as a career was impossible during the 16th century, as writers sold their works to publishing companies, often for a very low price.  Further complicating literary access, the state censored literary production, even giving a charter to the Stationers’ Company to license certain books. The crown’s hand in literary production shows the intertwined nature of literature and the court, and authors like Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Earl of Surrey thought of themselves as “courtiers, statesmen, and landowners; poetry was for them an indispensable social grace and a deeply pleasurable, exalted form of play” (548).  Authors often got financial rewards from patrons, but, primarily, writing was not a career, just a privilege because of a higher social standing. Therefore, writing produced was typically the result of funding and patronage preference. This funding still resulted in a variety of forms and modes, presumably because of the Renaissance mixture of classical influences and new ideas.  The emerging nationalism and the humanist appreciation for classics led to the translations of international works into English.  Furthermore, two forms that gained popularity during the Renaissance and 17th Century were the pastoral and the heroic, both rooted in classical literary traditions but still subject to innovations by Renaissance writers.  Finally, the mix of literature and an improved economy came together to make drama and theater more public with the establishment of permanent, free-standing theaters for Elizabethan theater.

B. Discuss Sidney’s key poetic theories as laid out in APOLOGY FOR POETRY in relation to how major Renaissance authors deploy these theories in their own writings.  Suggested authors and work include More (UTOPIA), Spenser (FAERIE QUEENE, “Shepheardes Calendar,” “Epithalamion”), Marlowe (DR. FAUSTUS), Milton (PARADISE LOST, “Lycidas”)
In Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney presents key poetic theories that influenced major Renaissance authors. Sidney first postulates that poets have a certain freedom not found anywhere else because they are only limited by their wit. This freedom allows poetry to “actively intervene in the world and transform it for the better” (Greenblatt 1044). Poetry is further justified by its rich history and the special status given to poets by ancient Romans and Greeks. Finally, Sidney argues that poetry’s importance lies in its ability to affect readers and bring about true change.  Writing as a tool for societal change is exemplified in More’s Utopia, which presents an ideal society as one with free education for all, a universal understanding of agriculture, and no shortage of trades.  Sidney’s theories can also be found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which adopts many characteristics of classical epics, like invoking a muse or focusing on love, war, and heroism (and thus supporting itself with references to a rich classical past, like Sidney proposed), but which also critiques society, specifically the crown’s unchecked authority through the church.  Finally, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene presents a series of complex moral dilemmas, and “readers are constantly in danger of mistaking hypocritical evil for good, or cunningly disguised foulness for true beauty” (Greenblatt 776).  Spenser plays with the freedom Sidney speaks of, for his poem fulfills a variety of roles—a national celebration, a chivalric romance, a heroic full of adventures and battles, and a critique of heroism and human sin.

C. Discuss the ways in which rediscovery of the classics and a new focus on individual experience lead to greater variety in genres, writing styles, and formats for literature in the Renaissance and 17th century.  Include several examples of specific works in your discussion.
The Renaissance also brought about Humanism, an assertion of the human figure as the center and an emphasis on individual experience.  Humanists also revered ancient texts, often reading them in their original language and appraising them with logic and reason.  An example of the effects of humanism on literature can be found in the Sonneteers, who used Petrarch’s techniques and content as a basis for poetic form innovations.  Ultimately, the Renaissance writer’s job was to show an understanding of and appreciation for the classics while still creating distances.  In Tottel’s Miscellany, we can see the effects of an international influence, as well as poets experimenting with new forms, like Wyatt and Surrey’s introduction of blank verse into Petrarchan form. Richard Barnfield also creates space in Cynthia when “redirecting the Petrarchan conventions of praise . . . to a man” (Greenblatt 1002).  Barnfield uses the line, “A lovely creature, brighter than day” to refer to Ganymede. Another example is Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, a mythological poem about two-ill fated lovers but one that gains distance from the classics because of Marlowe’s original treatment of the classical tale.  Though based on a classic story previously told by Ovid, this Hero and Leander are unique and full of paradoxes. In Marlowe’s account, Hero is a chastity-bound nun despite her service to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and “Leander is both a sharp, sophisticated seducer and a sexual innocent” (Greenblatt 1107). John Donne provides another example of new literary forms and an emphasis on individual experience is the metaphysical poets, with works like “Song,” “The Sun Rising,” and “The Indifferent.” In “The Cannonization,” Donne shows mastery of the metaphysical conceit, with his equating lovers and saints, two contrasting things that eventually merge into a single idea through his extended metaphor. Contrasting with the petrarchist school of poets were the anti-petrarchists, influenced by Wyatt, Surrey, and Gascoigne or cavalier poets. Both schools, though, resulted in the rise of sonnets, songs, and popular music, like in madrigals, airs, or ballads.

D.  Discuss types of prose from the 17C and the purposes of 17C writing that they illustrate, noting how these purposes reflect the political, religious, and scientific cross-currents of the period.
In the wake of the 16th century English Renaissance, the 17th Century produced new types of prose fulfilling new purposes. New scientific discoveries prompted scientists to compose descriptions of their discoveries, which often challenged previous understanding. One example of this is Galileo, whose astronomical discoveries built on Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe and challenged classical Ptolemaic theories. Galileo also points to religious, not just scientific, cross-currents, as he wrote to explain problematic biblical passages through the lens of a helio-centric universe.  Galileo’s theories were based on personal discoveries, so he, and other 17th Century scientific writers, valued personal experience much more than secondhand reading or learning from another source. Another example of the types of prose produced in the 17th Century can be found in Francis Bacon, whose The New Atlantis “proposes collaborative research institutes . . . adopt[ing] the voice of accumulated public wisdom” (Greenblatt 1661). Bacon shows the culture’s interest in scientific discovery and research, as well as an economic base that allowed for increased access to education.  Bacon and other scientists also saw science and discovery as progressive, a way to better humanity.                  Journalism also flourished in the 17th Century, becoming hugely popular after censorship fell with the crown in the 1640s.  An explosion of printed news followed, giving “a broad spectrum of readers access to information about current events” (Greenblatt 1835). This type of “overtly political, often ambitiously literary writing” set the stage for Restoration Era authors like Dryden, Swift, and Pope (1834). The combination of new discoveries, both scientifically and in form, and the increased access to news reporting perfectly preceded the Early English Novel because of the increased audience and writers beginning to describe and analyze the workings of everyday life.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.

Comparison of Milton and More

Utopia Everlasting and Paradise Lost: Nature, Work, and Intellect

Plush gardens, rich vegetation, succulent fruits–for the unaware Christian, John Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost (1667) shapes the biblical understanding of paradise.  To the more learned individual, however, Milton’s description is highly politicized, the components of his Eden significant, and upon noticing the weighted nature of Eden, the reader begins to wonder what components were prioritized in previous accounts of an earthly paradise.  Thomas More composed Utopia in 1516, and a parallel analysis of Paradise Lost and Utopia, specifically Book II, reveals similar elements that are used to communicate different ideologies. I will focus my comparison on three aspects: 1) the physical landscape; 2) the role of work; 3) the role of intellect and reason. Interestingly, though written 100 years apart, the two accounts have a similar emphasis on nature, work, and intellect, but one that speaks uniquely to its audience.  

            Both More and Milton create for their paradises a beautiful and compelling landscape.  More’s Utopia takes the form of a crescent-shaped island, complete with a broad bay that “is never rough, but quite and smooth instead” (Greenblatt 598). The island houses fifty-four cities, “all spacious and magnificent, identical in language, customs, institutions and laws,” and “every city has enough ground assigned to it so that at least twelve miles of farm land are available in every direction, though where the cities are farther apart, they have much more land” (599).  So while Utopia is highly populated, More still emphasizes the empty space and excess land; much like a pastoral, the peaceful, rural scene is idealized.  Similarly, Milton’s descriptions of Eden resemble the pastoral. Like Utopia, Eden is spacious, “stretch[ing] her line/From Auran eastward to the royal tow’rs/Of great Seleucia” (Greenblatt 2007). Furthermore, whereas More uses a serene sea to create a sense of peace, Milton uses vegetation, “trees of noblest kind . . . blooming ambrosial fruit/Of vegetable gold,” fed by a “fresh fountain,” “sapphire fount,” “orient pearl and sands of gold,” and resulting in “nature bounteous/Poured forth profuse on hill and dale and plain” (Greenblatt 2007, 2008).  In both Eden and Utopia, the landscape is not only beautiful, but also peaceful, and in these descriptions of peace there is no mention of humanity, just nature; paradise is peaceful, therefore, because it is removed from human tampering and ensuing chaos.

The accounts differ, however, in how far removed chaos is or is not. For More, Utopia is surrounded by harbors and coasts that are “rugged by nature,” resulting in an island “so well fortified that a few defenders could beat off the attack of a strong force” (Greenblatt 599).  Utopia, then, is suspended in this state of peace, harbored from any sort of attack.  This differs sharply from Eden, with its “close and precarious proximity of good and evil” (Loewenstein 85).  Whereas Utopia is protected from evil, Satan’s serpentine entrance into the garden shows that good and evil can, at least temporarily, exist simultaneously in Milton’s paradise. The significance is not in their co-existence but rather in the fragility of Eden’s peace. David Loewenstein says it best in his critique of Paradise Lost when he writes, “Despite the garden’s natural protections, . . . the furtive and voyeuristic Satan easily gets into it: he is compared to a wolf invading God’s sheepfold . . . reminding us how vulnerable and fragile this delightful place or locus amoenus is as we begin to share his view of its beauty and abundant pleasures” (85).  Nature completes Utopia’s protection from invasion, but for Milton, even nature cannot keep evil from entering Paradise. In Utopia, peace is guaranteed; in Eden, The Fall is inevitable.

The pastoral elements to both Utopia and Paradise Lost provide inviting settings, but settings that do not keep characters idle; instead, both works communicate activity as an important part of paradise.  In More’s society, “agriculture is the one occupation at which everyone works, men and women alike, with no exception.” Furthermore, “every person (and this includes women as well as men) learns a second trade, beside agriculture” (Greenblatt 603). Clearly, living in a utopia brings with it the requirement of work.  A similar standard exists in Eden, where Adam and Eve “also need to work, beginning early in the day, pruning the growing plants and tending the flowers, herbs, and fruits” (Loewenstein 84).  While both More and Milton emphasize the importance and necessity of work, there seems to be a distinct difference in the role of this emphasis. Milton communicates that for Adam and Eve it is a task, an assignment, so in Paradise Lost, working the garden shows Adam and Eve’s dominion over nature, but in Utopia work seems to fulfill an innate need of the people; according to Milton, work is for the garden, but according to More, work is for the people, “so that no one sits around in idleness” (Greenblatt 603). Milton and More, then, both communicate the importance of work, but this emphasis plays very different roles.

In both works, an aversion to idleness translates to a pursuit of education. More’s Utopians are “tireless . . . in intellectual pursuits,” studying “music, dialectic, arithmetic, and geometry,” and spending “their leisure time in reading” (614, 621).  Furthermore, all Utopians have free access to education, “a remarkable idea given that at the time of Utopia’s publication the vast majority of the population in England could neither read nor write” (Halpin 304).  For More, education is of utmost importance, and, according to David Halpin, the context surrounding More “indicates clearly that More was very committed to a particular version of the education process” (304).  In other words, surrounded by the abundance of Renaissance ideas, More’s educational ideal differed from previous ways of teaching. This perhaps explains why his Utopians “had never so much as heard about a single one of those philosophers whose names are so celebrated in our part of the world,” nor had they “discovered even of one those elaborate rules . . . or inventions of our modern logicians” (Greenblatt 614).  More promotes education but in an entirely different way, with a polite nod to the classics while also postulating that other areas of study, especially when done through individual experience, are as important as philosophy and logic.

Milton, on the contrary, elevates reason as the ideal, not by putting Adam and Eve through rigorous bouts of schooling but, rather, by creating a dichotomy of reason and desire.  Where desire triumphs, reason has failed, and for “those who restrain Desire . . . Reason usurps its place and governs” (Blake, qtd. in Saurat 175).  Or, in other words, The Fall occurs when reason is replaced by desire.  As the ideal, reason symbolizes Christ, and according to David Saurat in “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry,” “We have seen that Chris is, in truth, Reason triumphing over Desire . . . Thus Christ is ‘Reason,’ but not through allegory: he is truly the reasonable part of each believer, each man being part of God” (175, 6).  In Paradise Lost, reason is from God, of God, and accordingly combats desire, making it the ideal.  Milton is not focused on widespread education, like More, but he makes logic and reason top priorities by giving them such significance in the spiritual realm. Furthermore, by placing logic within humanity, Milton also elevates individual experience.

Paradise Lost and Utopia are very dissimilar works, providing bookends for the 16th and 17th century in British literature. Despite their differences, the presentation of paradise is rife with similarities, and it is interesting to see how the two works mirror each other in that they both elevate nature, work, and education. In their including these three elements as fundamental parts of paradise, More and Milton communicate cultural ideals, like the importance of the pastoral, the aversion to idleness, and the affluence of Renaissance learning and ideas. These similarities, though, are only surface deep, for behind the initial elevation the works are unique in the ultimate message they are communicating. For More, education for all is beneficial for society; for Milton, reason is divine. For More, work is healthy and helpful; for Milton, it is a human responsibility. For More, once gained, utopia is everlasting; for Milton, paradise is fragile and ultimately lost.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.

Halpin, David. “Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More.” British Journal of Education Studies 49.3 (2001): 299-315. JSTOR. Web. 16 July 2013.

Loewenstein, David. Milton: Paradise Lost. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Saurat, David. “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry in Milton’s Work.” Milton Criticism: Selections from Four Centuries. Ed. James Thorpe. New York: Collier Books, 1950. 169-77. Print.


Metaphysical versus Cavalier


M.H. Abrams defines metaphysical poets as “a group of seventeenth-century poets who, whether or not directly influenced by Donne, employ . . . the terminology and abstruse arguments of the medieval Scholastic philosophers” (215). First labeled by Dryden in Discourse Concerning Satire (1693), Donne was the forerunner in the metaphysical movement because his poetry opposed the traditions of Elizabethan poetry, especially verse like Spenser’s.  Whereas previous poetry was characterized by a “rich mellifluousness and [an] idealized view of human nature,” Donne’s poems are instead marked by an appreciation of truth seeking, “epitomizing that point brilliantly in the image of Truth on a craggy hill, very difficult to climb” (Abrams 216, Greenblatt 1371).


Donne also differs sharply from the cavalier poets and their “fluid, regular versification” (Abrams 216).  Perhaps the best example of this is in Ben Jonson’s “Song: To Celia,” composed of sixteen lines, with a rhyme scheme of ABCBDBEBFBGBFBGB. The repetition of the second line’s ending rhyme, along with the consistent meter—the first line consisting of eight syllables and the second line with six—which repeats until the poem’s end communicates a certain regularity that is not to be found in metaphysical poetry.  For example, Donne’s “Song” consists of three stanzas with nine lines each and a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDDD; while all three stanzas have the same rhyme and structure, their appearance on the page looks much less uniform than Jonson’s single sixteen-line stanza and repetition of lines.


Even more telling of Donne and Jonson’s differences is poetic content. Donne’s “Song” starts with the lines, “Go and catch a falling star,/Get with child a mandrake root,” (Greenblatt 1374).  Jonson’s “Song: To Celia” opens, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,/And I will pledge with mine;” (Greenblatt 1548).  Donne’s poem is much more abstract, with striking metaphors, and Jonson’s is much more direct.  Furthermore, the speaker in Donne’s poem is on a spiritual or emotional quest, a truth seeking of sorts, and it is difficult to separate Donne from the speaker in his poem; Donne’s emotion is almost inseparable from the emotion that leads the speaker to implore, “Tell me where all past years are,/Or who cleft the Devil’s foot,/Teach me to hear mermaids singing,/Or to keep off envy’s stinging,/And find/What wind/Serves to advance an honest mind” (Greenblatt 1374). In contrast, Jonson seems much more interested in making the poem appear and sound formal and structured, dealing less with nuanced emotion; while Celia’s lover is distressed that he “sent thee a late rosy wreath . . . But thou thereon didst only breathe,/And sent’st it back to me,” his emotion is much less complex than that of Donne’s speaker (Greenblatt 1548). In these differences, along with aforementioned structural differences, we can see the characteristic differences between metaphysical poets and cavalier poets.




Works Cited:
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Wadsworth: Boston. 2012.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 2012.