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Renaissance: Impact on English Literature

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“Renaissance” is a French word which means rebirth, reawakening or revival. In literature the term “Renaissance” is used to denote the revival of ancient classical literature and culture and re-awakening of human mind, after the long sleep in the Medieval Ages, to the glory, wonders and beauty of man’s earthly life and nature. The great literary movement, Renaissance began in Italy with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. But its influence was not felt in England till the last years of the fifteenth century when the English scholars who visited Italy at the time came back to England nourished on the Renaissance humanism. The Renaissance, however, had its full blossoming in the Elizabethan period (1551-1603). This late flowering of the Renaissance was due to the religious dissension (Reformation) which swept over England before Elizabeth’s accession to the throne. The most interesting significant product of the early Renaissance was the translation of Greek and Roman literature. The translators opened for their countrymen a window into the enchanted world of classical antiquity which appeared with all the freshness of a new discovery, the world of the gods and the goddesses of Greece and the great soldiers and statesmen and the Roman Empire.

Moreover they brought their readers too into contact with the life and thought of contemporary Europe, and especially of Renaissance Italy. The invention of the printing press placed the translations within the reach of the common people. The translators amassed rich stores of material for the dramatists and poets of the future. Let us now consider the impact of the Renaissance on Elizabethan poetry, drama and prose. Under the influence of the Renaissance English poetry awoke as from a long sleep at the court of Henry VIII. The English poetry was kindled into new life by contact with the Italian Renaissance. There appeared a group of courtier-poets who, under the influence of Renaissance individualism, inaugurated a new fashion of writing poems of personal kind (for the great characteristic of medieval poetry was its impersonal character) dealing particularly with love. The two members of this group-Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey were the chieftains of the new literary movement.

Wyatt abandoned the conventions of the long poem and the allegory which had hampered the late medieval poets and produced the monstrosities of Lydgate and Hawes. He imparted a new dignity and a new power the short poem. He introduced into English poetry the sonnet, the most compact form for the short poem. Surrey is more definitely a humanist poet than Wyatt. He was influenced by Petrarch and like Wyatt he translated from the Italian. He translated from Martial, Horace and Virgil and his translations have something of the lucidity, conciseness and elegance of the originals. If Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it is Surrey who introduced blank verse, the great epic and dramatic measure in English. His translation of the two books of Virgil’s Aeneid is doubly significant as the first English verse translation of Virgil and also as the first example of blank verse; one of the effects of the study of the classics was to lessen the prestige of rhyme. Surrey’s blank verse was a definite step in the direction of a literary form in which the greatest Elizabethans won their highest triumphs. The Renaissance turned England into a huge nest of singing birds.

The zest for life was one of the gifts of the Renaissance, and this zest found its expression in songs. This song is everywhere; it resounds in the drawing-rooms, it wanders along the roads; it is in the town and in the country, it abounds on the stage and in the novel. Indifferent to the plastic arts,England became the impassioned lover of song. One important effect of the Renaissance was the revival of classical literature, the revival which commonly goes by the name of humanism. Of the Elizabethan poets Spenser was most influenced by the Renaissance humanism. He is rightly called the child of the renaissance. He often borrowed from classical writer such as Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, and others. The Shepherd’s Calendar is modeled on the artificial pastoral popularized by the Renaissance and inspired by Virgil and Theocritus. In this poem he sets himself to rescue English poetry from the “rascally rhymes” into whose hands it had fallen and to reform it in its kind, metre and action.

In his plan and conduct of The Faerie Queene he follows the classical model of a heroic poem and takes a lot from the classical writers. Sir Guyon’sVoyage to the Bower of Bliss is baded upon a similar voyage in Homer’s Odyssey. Spenser also shared in the rich sensuous life the Renaissance had thrown open to men. His poems,The Faerie Queene in particular offer us a rich feast for our sense. Similarly, the Renaissance exercised a great influence on the Metaphysical Poetry. Metaphysical poetry is predominantly intellectual and analytical. In it an emotion or feeling is expressed through the working of the intellect. The poets who wrote successfully in the metaphysical style were all intellectual. Donne, the leader of the metaphysical’s, for instance, links up a wider range of ideas. In Metaphysical poetry emotions are shaped and expressed by logical reasoning, and both sound and picture are subservient to this end. Words dedicated to poetry are eschewed because these words are charged with accumulated emotion.

Like Wordsworth they prefer words in everyday use, but their practice goes even further than his theory. Wordsworth proposed to use the natural language of impassioned feeling. But the metaphysical poets use the natural language of men when they are soberly engaged in commerce or in scientific speculation, so that the words themselves, apart from their meaning in the context, have no repercussion. Similarly, the Renaissance exercised a great influence on the course of the English drama. It is under its influence that the moralities underwent a kind of gradual secularization and evolved into a form of the drama called the interludes. And though the aim of the interludes is still didactic, it is not so intimately concerned with the salvation of soul according to the church teaching. Again, the characters on the interludes were real men and women, and not personified abstracters, as in the moralities. The regular English drama is the product of the Renaissance. The classics began to be studied avidly with the result that the scope of the drama was widened. In comedy the principal influences were the dramas of Plautus and Terence and the Italian comedies written in imitation of Latin models. In tragedy the principal influence were the tragedies of Seneca.

The most important comedies in English in the early Renaissance period are Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle, both of which were deeply influenced by Plautine and Terentain models. Like the plays of Terence and Plaututs, both these comedies are rich in complicated situations and the main plots are intermingled with subplots, they are divided into five acts with rigid care over the Renaissance principle that a new act begins when the stage is bare, and a new scene when a character joins or leaves those who are in conversation. The first English tragedy Gorboduc is modeled on Seneca. It is divided into five acts. The action takes place behind the scenes and each act ends with a chorus, in imitation of the Seneca tragedies. Likewise, Shakespearean drama is profoundly concerned with shifting power relations within society. “The individual was a new force on relation to the state. The threat of rebellion, of the overturning of established order, was forcefully brought home to the Elizabethan public by the revolt of the Earl of Essex, once the Queen’s favourite” (93:Routledge). The contemporary debate questioned the relationship between individual life, the power and the authority of the state, and the establishing of moral absolutes.

Where mediaeval drama was largely used as a means of showing God’s designs, drama in Renaissance England focuses on man, and becomes a way of exploring his weakness, depravities, flaws and qualities. Shakespeare’s themes are frequently the great abstract, universal themes, seen both on the social level and the individual level: power, ambition, love, death, and so on. The language of the characters is recognizably the same as they speak. From Kings to ordinary soldiers, from young lovers to old bawds, Shakespeare’s characters speak modern English. The language of Shakespeare is the first and lasting affirmation of the great changes that took place in the sixteenth century, leaving the Middle English of Chaucer behind. Among the prose-writers the chief exponents of the Renaissance are Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and More’s Utopia show how the English scholars of the time were imbued with the spirit of the classical Renaissance. Praise of Folly gives the best expression in literature of the attack that the Oxford reformers like Linacre, “Colet and Lyly were making upon medieval system.

It is like a song of victory for the Renaissance which reigned supreme in the Middle Ages. Utopia is the product of the Renaissance thought. It revolts against all the ideals dear to the Middle Ages. It is built upon Plato’s Republic which embodies the dream of an ideal state and rests on the impulse to react against the stiff inert conception of society which obtained in the Middle Ages. The opportunistic utilitarian philosophy of worldly success and self-aggrandizement as enunciated by Machiavelli in his The Prince greatly influenced the Elizabethan writers. Machiavellian philosophy deeply impressed Bacon. His essays give the fullest expression to the practical wisdom that makes for success in human life.

Philosophical prose writer, Bacon’s contribution to English literature is that of a pioneer. He did more than introduce a new literary genre. English prose before him was cumbrous. It could rise, but it could not easily sink. The new style of bacon fitted itself as easily to buildings and gardens or to suitors and ceremonies, as to truth and death. It could sink to the familiarity of likening money to muck, not good unless it is spread or rise to a comparison between the movements of the human mind and those of the heavenly bodies. In his Essays he treats such elevated themes as justice and truth on the one hand, and such trifling themes as masques and factions on the other.

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