The classical poems in English
“Although the Renaissance was an age of impressive experiment in literary practice, it was also an age that yearned to coordinate its activities with classical tenets and procedures” Examine the relationship between literary innovation and classical imitation in Elizabethan literature, with reference to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene During the Renaissance period there was a flourish of classical imitation in new texts, whereby authors would use characters or allusions from classical literature to give their work more depth and meaning.
The Italian Renaissance led to a revival of classical texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Edmund Spenser uses in The Faerie Queene. The humanist movement viewed the ancient Roman and Greek empires as the peak of human achievement, specifically intellectual achievement. As a result, Latin and Greek texts were almost ‘rediscovered’ and translated into the vernacular so that they could be more widely read. The translations were also a result of English patriotism and pride in the English language at this time.
Initially, humanism had concentrated on learning Greek and Latin, the languages of diplomacy, but the translations allowed texts to be studied in universities and added to the curriculum of schools throughout England (Greenblatt : 505). This was a time of great curriculum reform, or ‘self fashioning’ (505) , which saw a move from training students for the church, to teaching the ‘acquisition of literature'(505), so that pupils had a literary and cultural knowledge of Greek and Latin. The classics were also studied for their moral, political and philosophical worth, which often coincided with traditional Christian values.
It is for this reason that in The Faerie Queene we see a mixture of Pagan Gods and Christian images. Spenser attended the Merchant Taylor’s school in London under Richard Mulcaster, who established a rigorous programme of study, including Latin, Greek and also Hebrew. At this school Spenser would have been exposed to classical texts and learnt to remember their stories and morals. It is not surprising, therefore, that these images were transposed into his, and other writer’s works. Classical imitation was respected in the Renaissance period for it’s reminiscence of great empires and traditional values.
‘Imitation’ is perhaps the wrong word to use, for it was not necessarily a copying, or reworking, of classical texts, but rather a following of examples. Instead of copying their styles, Renaissance writers were copying classical standards. It was hoped that through this, readers would take into account these standards and improve their own lives by them. As Spenser wrote in a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, attached to a manuscript of The Faerie Queene, ‘The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline’ (Greenblatt : 716).
Sarah Hutton describes that ‘The ultimate aim was not slavish copying, but emulation’ (Hutton : 47) but Sir Philip Sidney held an opposing view. He claimed that ‘Poetry in an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word mimesis’ and that poetry was ‘a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth to speak metaphorically’ (Sidney : 78, 79-80). In The Defense of Poesy, written in 1583, Sidney argued that combining philosophy with history within poetry is more effective that either by themselves, in that it will rouse the readers to lead virtuous lives.
(Poets) do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach; and delight, to move men to take that goodness in hang, without which delight they would fly as from a stranger, and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved. (Sidney : 81) The emphasis is again on the importance of improving one’s self, bettering yourself through the means of poetry. Sidney took this one step further and along with other academics, attempted to adapt the classics exactly into the English language.
He tried to gain the exact metre of the classical poems in English, but the classically trained scholars found that matching the exact syllables as well as rhymes was ‘barbarous’. Spenser himself noted that Sidney had developed a set of rules to do this by, but did not like trying to copy the classical authors to this degree as it meant that the poem was entirely governed by the verse forms; quantitative verse, which is difficult to use in English because of the variety of accents (Waller : 170).
Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is typical of the classical imitation of the Renaissance, in that it aims to ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline’ (Greenblatt : 716). The six books represent different virtues, which Spenser claims are from Aristotle, namely; Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice and Courtesy. The letter to Raleigh states that Spenser originally intended to write twelve books in total, though considering the length of the six that he managed to complete; it is doubtful whether twelve could ever have been written.
Spenser also writes that King Arthur will be the central figure throughout The Faerie Queene although he appears very little, usually towards the end of each book. The inclusion of Pagan Gods and classical values, in addition to the underlying Christian message, often makes the text very confusing for the reader. There are many characters which appear and disappear just as quickly, some whom we are lead to believe are core figures, but turn out to be passing individuals. However, this ‘copiousness, the ability to enrich a topic with a variety of vocabulary, was seen as a virtue’ (Heale : 1).