A golden age of English literature began in 1485 and lasted until 1660.
In the first years of the Tudor period, English was still spoken in a number of different ways as there were reminders of the Saxon, Angles, Jute and Viking invasions in the different forms of language spoken in different parts of the country. Since the time of Chaucer, London English had become accepted as standard English but it was William Caxton who, with the introduction of the printing press to England in 1476, made this standard English more widely accepted amongst the literate population.
From that time on, readership was vastly multiplied and, by the 17th century, about half the population could read and write. The growth of the middle class, the development of trade, the education for laypeople and not only clergy, the centralization of power, the great intellectual life in the court of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and the widening horizons of exploration gave a new impetus to literature.
Literary development in the earlier part of the 16th century was weakened by the polemics of the the religious struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, a product of the Reformation. For this reason England felt the effects of the Humanism later than much of Europe; in fact the new literature fully flourished during the last 20 years of the 1500s, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Humanism encouraged the study of the literature of classical antiquity and. literary style became in part modelled on that of the ancients. In the early years of the 16th century, English thinkers rejected medieval theological mis-teaching and superstition and became interested in the work of the Dutch philosopher Erasmus. One of them, Thomas More in 1516, wrote a study of the ideal nation, called Utopia (Greek for “nowhere”) a distant land organized on purely reasonable principles. In this prose work he satirizes the irrationality of assumptions about private property and money and share Plato’s opinion about the failure of kings who make use of the wisdom of philosophers.
In music England enjoyed a great fruit full period.
There was also considerable interest in the new painters in Europe, and England developed its own special kind of painting, the miniature portrait .
The two greatest innovators of the new and rich style of Renaissance poetry were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, both educated Elizabethan courtiers.
Sidney inaugurated the sonnet cycle in his Astrophel and Stella (written 1582?; published 1591). In this work he followed the metaphorical style of the earlier Italian sonnet and celebrates his idealized love for Penelope Devereux, the daughter of 1st earl of Essex. In these lyrics the poet professes to see in her an ideal of womanhood that leads to a perception of the good, the true, and the beautiful and consequently of the divine. This idealization of the beloved remained a favoured motif in much of the poetry and drama of the late 16th century. It had its roots in the Platonic speculations of humanism and in the chivalric idealization of love in medieval romance.
The most famous work of the period is Spenser’s uncompleted Faerie Queene (Books I-III, 1590; Books IV-VI, 1596) In this work Spenser tried to create out of the English elements of Arthurian romances a noble English epic. His effort in this respect corresponded to the new demands expressed by Sidney in the critical essay The Defence of Poesie, originally Apologie for Poetrie (written 1583?; posthumously published 1595). Spenser’s conception of his role is conformed to Sidney’s general description of the poet: he is the inspired voice of God revealing examples of morally perfect actions in an aesthetically ideal world.
In a number of other lyrical and narrative works Sidney and Spenser displayed the ornate, highly figured style characteristic of a great deal of Elizabethan poetic expression; but two other poetic
The first tendency is exemplified by the poetry of John Donne and the other so-called metaphysical poets. This often-paradoxical style was used for a variety of poetic purposes, from complex emotional attitudes to the simple admiration for its own virtuosity. Among the most important of Donne’s followers, George Herbert is distinguished for his carefully constructed religious lyrics, which expresses with personal humility the emotions appropriate to all true Christians. Other members of the metaphysical school are Henry Vaughan, a follower of Herbert, and Richard Crashaw, who was influenced by Continental Catholic mysticism. Andrew Marvell wrote metaphysical poetry of great power and fluency, but he also responded to other influences. The involved metaphysical style remained fashionable until late in the 17th century.
The second late Renaissance poetic tendency was in reaction to the sometimes abundance of the Spenserians and to the sometimes tortuous verbal gymnastics of the metaphysical poets. Best represented by the poetry of Ben Jonson and his school, it reveals a classically pure style that had strong influence on late figures such as Robert Herrick and the other Cavalier poets and gave the direction for the poetic development of the following neoclassical period.
The last great poet of the English Renaissance was the Puritan writer John Milton, who, having at his command a thorough classical education and the benefit of the preceding half-century of experimentation in the various schools of English poetry, approached with greater maturity than Spenser the task of writing a great English epic. Although he adhered to Sidney’s and Spenser’s notions of the inspired role of the poet as the lofty instructor of humanity, he rejected the fantastic and miscellaneous machinery, involving classical mythology and medieval knighthood, of The Faerie Queene in favor of the central Christian and biblical tradition. With grand simplicity and poetic power Milton narrated in Paradise Lost (1667) the machinations of Satan leading to the fall of Adam and Eve from the state of innocence; and he performed the task in such a way as to “justify the ways of God to man” and to express the central Christian truths of freedom, sin, and redemption as he conceived them. His other poems, such as the elegy Lycidas (1637), Paradise Regained (1671), and the classically patterned tragedy Samson Agonistes (1671), similarly reveal astonishing poetic power and grace under the control of a profound mind.