Trace the broad currents of Renaissance Humanism and its expression in English courtly love and poetry.
Renaissance, meaning ‘rebirth’, was a movement which swept across Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. It marked the end of the Medieval Age, and ushered in modernism. Renaissance propagated the philosophy of humanism, which destabilized the supremacy of religion and focussed on individualism. Humanism revived Roman and Greek literature and art, and also encouraged scientific discovery. The human body was celebrated, and the present world became an end in itself; instead of just a preparation point for an afterlife. The central significance of the movement was the rediscovery of humane philosophy of Greek and Rome, and the re-attachment of importance to individualism. However, not all the influences of medievalism disappeared, and the Renaissance man lived suspended between the question of Faith and Doubt. The Renaissance began in Italy, and gradually spread across Europe. England was one of the last to come under its irresistible influence. By the time it reached England, the Renaissance was already in full bloom in other countries. The English Renaissance was thus heavily influenced by the movement in other countries; yet the English managed to adapt the movement to suit their peculiar political situation.
In England, Humanism gained popularity at a time when education was promoted to suit the needs of the ruling classes (Carroll 246).The monarchy was eager to portray the court as a centre of power, and recruit a larger group of people to play an active role in the bureaucracy. With Henry VIII as king, the influence of foreign courts was brought into England, and the country began to emerge gradually as a site of great literature and culture. Hattaway remarks that Renaissance is mostly an aristocratic phenomenon (Hattaway ii). To understand the Renaissance in England, it is thus sufficient to focus on the influence it had on the English court. Through this essay, I would like explore Renaissance Humanism in England and its role in developing a court culture and shaping ideas of love.
When Queen Elizabeth came into power, the desirability of being a part of the court increased even more. From the time of Henry VIII, the role of courtiers had gained more and more power. Courtiers had dependents under them, and were often patrons of art and literature. The courtiers helped to advance the prospect of those outside court. The system of patronage ensured that court culture extended far beyond the court, to aspirants who wished to be a part of the monarch’s circle and receivers of patronage, as courtliness became a mark of privilege. The impact of court culture on the literature of this period is tremendous, as works of literature were either written by courtiers themselves, or were written to gain the patronage of someone who had access to the court. Thus, understanding Renaissance literature demands foreknowledge of the social setting (Perry 106-08).
England was in a unique position because it was ruled by Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. The Queen was allegorized as England itself, and an excessive stress was placed on her virginity, because she was an unmarried queen. To gain her favour, the courtiers engaged in active courtship. Literary conceits were developed in plays, masques and poetry, to increase the aura surrounding her personality, and to court her favour (Perry 113). Poetry played an important role in expressing the complex relationship between the queen and her courtiers. The sonnet form, along with the Petrarchan concept of love (the courting of an idealized, unattainable, and unyielding beloved by a relatively social inferior and the transcendentalism which the lover yearns to achieve through the beloved) was adopted by the English courtiers to express their complicated and unstable standing in the court and to further their favour in the queen’s eyes. While the sonnets describe a private relationship, it also alluded to politics of the time, and invoked the image of the queen. In Spenser’s Amoretti, “Sonnet 34” is a vivid description of a lover who has lost the favour of his beloved. The poet persona’s description of himself as a sailor lost at sea, unable to see the guiding light of his mistress’s eyes. This may appear to be a private anguish. Yet, it can also be expressive of Spenser’s frustration of losing the queen’s favour, and an appeal to her to “looke on me at last/ With lovely light to cleare my cloudy grief” (lines 11-12). In “Sonnet 73”, Spenser fuses the three loves of his life: his mother, his lover and the queen, all of who share the name Elizabeth; thus combining the multiple roles the queen fashioned for herself: motherly figure, mistress and monarch (Bates 73). Bates remarks that Elizabethan courtly literature was so amorous that “courtship” and “courtiership” were not seen as distinctly separate functions (Bates 74). Courtly poetry was employed to voice concerns about the court, and to promote the individuality of a courtier as opposed to other courtiers. Sidney in Astrophil and Stella, “Sonnet XV”, takes a jibe at the courtier-poets who blindly follow Petrarchan conventions in their writing, and says that the beloved is the perfect source for inspiration. The persona of Stella is associated with the queen, indicating Sidney’s ardent devotion and love for the monarch. In fact, his Astrophil and Stella sparked a trend in courtly poetry which was imitated by many poets, because this sonnet sequence dramatized “the tension between the lover’s desire and what is actually expressed” in the poems (Henderson 382).
Stephen Greenblatt, in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning, presents the centrality of fashioning an identity for oneself during the Renaissance period. Greenblatt argues that the ability to shape oneself is a reflection of the greater power to control identity. By the sixteenth century, the fashioning of identity had become a “manipulative, artful process” (Greenblatt 1-2). In the Elizabethan court, we see courtiers posturing themselves as lovers of the unattainable queen, and also shaping their role in their poetry. Spenser’s Epithalamion is an unusual departure from the Petrarchan convention: not only has the beloved yielded to the lover, but also the poet-persona has achieved transcendentalism not through the death of his beloved, but by a legitimate consummation of his passion. By doing this, Spenser seems to reverse the power relationship between the queen and the courtier. Catherine Bates remarks, “Henceforth (it seems), the images of power and subjection which have structured the self-positioning of the poet and his mistress are changed round, for it is no longer the male poet who suffers in captivity but, rather, his beloved” (76). The image of the trembling deer in Amoretti 67 continues throughout Epithalamion. By conquering the beloved, Spenser brings her down from unattainable heights into a body which can be possessed. Thus, he attains authority over “Elizabeth”. Sidney’s poetry is also similarly an example of posturing. By strictly adhering to the conventions of courtly love poetry, his poems are “severely practical” (Kinney 346). Sidney has no option but to fashion himself as a courtier of the queen, according to the conventions of the time, both for political advancement and the appreciation of his poetry.
Thus, the influence of Renaissance Humanism in England served to propound the wishes of the ruling class, by intensifying the aura and desirability that surrounded the court, and the members of the court. The concept of love was not that of a private emotion, but a posturing of political expression.
However, it would be wrong to see the influence of Renaissance Humanism on England as a mere tool in the hands of the ruling class to tighten its power. It was as much an aesthetic movement as it was a political one. It led to an increase in readership, classical learning and literature. Humanist works themselves sometimes present criticism of the political system, as is evident from the veiled frustrations expressed by many poets about an unpredictable monarch. We can also see firmly aesthetic European Renaissance influences on poetry. The invocation of pagan gods, the emphasis on the representation of the self, the secular expression of love and desire are all Roman and Greek influences. Sidney’s defence of poetry is based on the Humanist concept of imitation: imitation as a guide to virtue and as a delight to the reader (Carroll 259).
Thus, though Renaissance Humanism found expression in courtly literature in England, it was more than a political tool. With the Renaissance, England was able to establish itself as a centre of literature and culture in Europe. An astounding amount of literature, especially in the form of poetry and drama, were produced during this period. The court was the pivot for this period of blossoming of art. The courtly tradition did not confine the power of Renaissance in England. Rather, it served to stimulate it to greater heights.
Bates, Catherine. “The Politics of Spenser’s “Amoretti””. Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 1, English Renaissance Literature (winter, 1991), pp. 73-89. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23113624
Carroll, Clare. “Humanism and English Literature in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries”. Ed. Kraye, Jill. The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. London: The University of Chicago, 2005. Print.
Hattaway, Michael, ed. A Companion to Renaissance Literature and Culture. UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001. Web.
Henderson, Diana E. “Love Poetry”. Ed. Hattaway, Michael. A Companion to Renaissance Literature and Culture. UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001. Web.
Kinney, Arthur F. “The Position of Poetry: Making and Defending Renaissance Poetics”. Ed. Hattaway, Michael. A Companion to Renaissance Literature and Culture. UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001. Web.
Perry, Curtis. “Court and Coterie Culture”. Ed. Hattaway, Michael. A Companion to Renaissance Literature and Culture. UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001. Web.
Ramdev, Rina, ed. Sidney Spenser and Donne: A Critical Introduction. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2012. Print.
Sidney, Philip. “An Apology for Poetry”. Background Prose Selections. Delhi: Worldview Publications. Print.