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Early New English Poetry

Early New English is traditionally distinguished in the history of the
language because it was in this period that the rest of the grammatical
categories came into use, the last systematic and cardinal change in the
sound system occurred, shifting the real sound form of the words from
the spelling to almost the present-day state (since that period only
slight, minor spelling changes were introduced in Britain, probably in
the American variant the changes were a little bit more sizeable). Early
New English was the period when borrowing of foreign words came not due
to invasion, but because the English language was already free from its
xenophobic qualities, and even the most strict scholars did not reject
them; on the contrary, scholarly language abounded in borrowings too.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was marked by extensive trade
contacts and the struggle with England’s European rivals — France, Spain
and Portugal (in 1588 the Spanish Fleet, the invincible Armada was
routed). Colonial expansion began.

The heightened activity of the age, uneven though it was, produced a
most extraordinary outpouring of great art. The idealism of the age is
represented in the living examples of such men as Sir Walter Raleigh and
Sir Philip Sidney, who, like Hamlet, embodied the «courtier’s,
soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword.» Admired by all who knew him,
Sidney wrote his spirited Defence of Poesie (1579-81; publ. 1595) as
well as a long, complex prose pastoral, the Arcadia (1590). His
contemporary Edmund Spenser, after composing The Shepheards Calendar
(1579), a book of pastoral eclogues dedicated to Sidney, embarked on an
epic romance, The Faerie Queene (1590-96). This great allegorical poem
was intended to demonstrate the virtues of a Christian prince, Arthur,
serving England and its sovereign, Elizabeth. The epic owed much to
Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), and many English writers drew heavily
on continental literatures; they also infused their work with native
traditions and originality, however, and were unencumbered by principles
of classicism, so that their writings were far from merely imitative.
Thus while William Shakespeare borrowed freely from Boccaccio and
Montaigne, his plays and poems are not copies but transformations into
something «rich and strange.» The language itself experienced an immense
expansion and increased flexibility. New words and new uses of existing
ones together with borrowings from other languages combined to make
English rich and versatile. Only the most pedantic of writers suffered
constraints. In drama, multiple plots and frank violations of the
unities of time and place were the rule, although such «classical»
playwrights as Ben Jonson composed excellent comedies like Every Man in
His Humour (1598) and Volpone (1606) within the unities. Translations
became popular and influential. Sir Thomas Hoby’s translation (1561) of
Castiglione’s The Courtier and Sir Thomas North’s translation (1579) of
Plutarch’s Lives in their different ways promoted the ideals of courtly
or heroic behavior. Marlowe, George Chapman, and others rendered
classical poets into English. Although the novel remained in still
rudimentary form, Thomas Nashe and Thomas Lodge (also University Wits)
were but two of many who wrote prose fiction. John Lyly’s novels and
plays show an elegant if artificial style that directly influenced other
writers and, it is said, even Elizabeth. The first true English-language
essayist, Francis Bacon, published his Essays, Civil and Moral in 1597;
the descriptive geographical works of Richard Hakluyt, based on actual
voyages, were the most comprehensive of the time; and the Chronicles
(1577) of Raphael Holinshed reflected the Elizabethans’ interest in
history.

The decade of the 1590s evinced a remarkable outburst of lyrical poetry.
The Sonnets of Shakespeare were only one of many sonnet sequences,
written by such poets as Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Sidney, and
Spenser-all influenced by Petrarch’s sonnets. Other lyric forms were
popular, too, as well as ballads and broadsides. The Songs and Sonnets
of John Donne belong to this decade, although they were not published
(1633) until after his death. Thus conventional lyric poetry and the new
metaphysical verse coexisted, each in its own way showing wit,
imagination, and metrical virtuosity.

A similar, perhaps greater, richnessNand diversity characterize
Elizabethan drama. Plays were performed in any suitable location:
innyards, the halls of great manor houses, university towns, the Inns of
Court, as well as in public and private theaters. Many companies
performed plays — including Shakespeare’s company, the Lord
Chamberlain’s Men — and children’s companies were also widely admired,
competing with other professional troupes. The romantic comedies of
Lyly, Greene, and Peele, surpassed only by the joyous comedies of
Shakespeare, flourished simultaneously with satirical «humours» comedies
by Jonson and Chapman. It was in tragedy, however, that the age realized
its most powerful literary achievement. From the earlier, almost
primitive plays — such as Gorboduc (1561), the first English drama in
blank verse — to the greater accomplishments of Kyd {The Spanish
Tragedy, 1586), Marlowe (Doctor Faustus, 1588; Tamburlaine the Great,
1590; The Jew of Malta, 1590; Edward II, 1594), and Shakespeare,
Elizabethan dramatists continued to develop their art, mixing comic
elements with tragic, introducing subplots, and adapting freely from
classical or other original sources.

Throughout the Renaissance, whether in Ulysses’ speech on «degree» in
Troilus and Cressida, or the Sir John Davies poem Orchestra (1596),
ideas of order, part and parcel of Elizabethan life, are mirrored in the
literature of the age. These ideas are formally organized in one of the
great prose tracts of the time, the Treatise on the Laws of
Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), by Richard Hooker.

Among other scholars to be mentioned here are John Cheke and Thomas
Smith from Cambridge who were greatly concerned with the inconsistencies
of the English spelling. Their discussion on spelling normalisation is
reflected in the book published in 1568 — «A Dialogue concerning the
correct and emended Writing of the English language». 34 letters were
suggested to make the spelling more logical. John Hart, one of the
greatest phoneticians of the 16th century wrote much on the subject, his
best-known work » An Orthographie» (1569) suggests the ways to reform
the spelling. The efforts of the scholars were also directed to making
people pronounce words as they were written. As can be seen, in practice
these works not so much influenced the spelling but they give us the
clue how it all was pronounced at those times.

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