Medieval and Early Modern Poetry

How poetry evolved between the middle ages and the time of Shakespeare

Sir Philip Sidney
The Lusiads
17th century

Key Features of Medieval Poetry

Medieval poetry constitutes a rich and diverse body of literature, spanning roughly from the 5th to the 15th century. In Europe, many poems were written in Latin, the language of the Church, while vernacular languages like Old English and Old French came into more frequent literary use over time.


A notable feature of poetry in Medieval Europe is the use of allegory, in which stories or characters convey symbolic meanings of moral, religious, or philosophical significance.

For example the 13th-century French poem, *The Roman de la Rose*, describes a dream vision set in a walled garden, in which characters named, for example, “Reason” and “Jealousy” (representing those abstract qualities) play out a narrative intended to impart a moral lesson about courtly love. The central symbol is the rose itself – an emblem of romantic pursuit and ultimate fulfillment.

This poem’s focus on chivalry and romance is highly characteristic of poetry of this era, which frequently celebrated the virtues of knights and their devotion to a lady, who is typically portrayed as unattainable or distant.

Putting a Medieval Twist on Ancient Classics

During the medieval period, numerous poets were drawn to refashioning the literature of Classical Greece and Rome according to the stylistic conventions and thematic interests of the time.

One such poet was the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, a prominent writer of the 14th century. Though best known for his influential work, *The Decameron*, it is his poem *Il Filostrato*, published in 1338, that exemplifies this form of synthesis, intertwining themes of medieval courtly love with ancient epic.


*Il Filostrato”* follows the story of Troilus, a Trojan prince who, though a relatively minor character in Homer’s *Iliad*, becomes the focal point of Boccaccio’s narrative. As the Trojan War rages on, Troilus falls passionately in love with Criseida against the epic backdrop of war and tragedy. Boccaccio’s focus is not, however, upon martial valor, but rather courtship, unrequited desire, and emotional turmoil.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Italian poets like Bocaccio were considerably influential to literary developments in England. For example, the most famous work of Geoffrey Chaucer, *The Canterbury Tales,* draws inspiration from Boccaccio’s *The Decameron* in its use of a frame narrative, in which a group of characters come together to share stories with each other.


In *The Decameron,* a group of people retreat to a villa to escape the plague-ridden city of Florence, entertaining themselves by telling 100 tales. Similarly, in *The Canterbury Tales,* a diverse group of pilgrims journey to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury, sharing tales with each other to pass the time – ranging from courtly romance and bawdy fabliau to saintly hagiography and chivalric adventure.

While Chaucer was inspired by Boccaccio’s narrative structure, he departs from *The Decameron* in using poetic verse, rather than prose. *The Canterbury Tales*, composed in Middle English, also marked a departure from the traditional use of Latin or French in English literature, elevating the status of the English language.

Dante Alighieri

Italian medieval poetry not only integrated classical influences with themes of chivalry and courtly romance but also took on deeply Christian ideas.

In Dante Alighieri’s *Divine Comedy* (completed around 1321), for example, the protagonist is guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who serves not only as a symbol of human reason and wisdom but also as a link to the classical past.


The poem is, however, profoundly catholic. Divided into three parts – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, it chronicles Dante’s journey through realms of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Each part of the journey embodies a specific moral lesson, with the overarching allegory representing the soul’s quest for redemption and divine grace.

*The Divine Comedy* is distinctive for its use of terza rima: stanzas of three lines, with a rhyme scheme of “aba bcb cdc ded” etc. (the middle line of each stanza rhyming with the first and third lines of the following). This creates a chain-like effect throughout the poem.

The Birth of the Sonnet

A sonnet sequence, also known as a sonnet cycle, is a collection of interconnected sonnets that share a common theme, narrative, or subject, and its origins can be traced back to the 14th century, with the Italian poet Petrarch’s *Canzoniere.*

*The Canzoniere*, or “Songs,” are a collection of 366 poems, the majority of which are sonnets dedicated to his idealized love, Laura. This work not only popularized the sonnet form but also introduced the concept of a cohesive series of individual poems that delve into the complexities of love, desire, and the poet’s own emotions.


The sonnet sequence became particularly popular in 16th-century England. For example, Sir Philip Sidney’s *Astrophil and Stella* comprises 108 sonnets and 11 songs that recount the story of Astrophil’s unrequited love for Stella. Other notable English sonnet sequences include Edmund Spenser’s *Amoretti*, and Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets, which explore themes of love, beauty, mortality, and the passage of time.

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Beyond his achievements in theater, the playwright William Shakespear’s contribution to poetry extends to his collection of 154 sonnets (1609), as well as his long narrative poems based on classical mythology: *Venus and Adonis* and °The Rape of Lucrece*, both published in the 1590s.


Shakespeare’s sonnets, as earlier explained, differed from Petrarch’s in several formal ways, but also in their often satirical angle. For example, Sonnet 130, beginning “”My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, deliberately undermines the clichéd comparisons used in other love poetry, such as the beloved’s breath being like perfume or her voice like music.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are also distinctive in their frequent meditations on the nature of poetry itself, and its relationship to time and mortality. Take, for instance, Sonnet 55:

*Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.*

Renaissance Epic Revival

The period that we call the “Renaissance” (literally meaning “rebirth”), and spanning roughly between the late 14th and 17th centuries, is named as such due to the resurgence of classical learning and classical art.


While, as earlier explored, medieval writers incorporated classical themes and characters into their work (such as Bocaccio’s Troilus or Dante’s Virgil), renaissance poets demonstrated greater interest in emulating the styles and forms of classical literature, particularly the epic tradition. Some significant examples include:

Ludovico Ariosto’s *Orlando Furioso* (completed 1532): An Italian epic poem that narrates the adventures of Orlando, Charlemagne’s chief paladin, and his companions.

Torquato Tasso’s *Jerusalem Delivered* (1581): Another Italian epic poem, this work tells the story of the First Crusade and the siege of Jerusalem.

Luís de Camões’s *The Lusiads* (1572): A Portuguese epic poem that celebrates the 16th-century Portuguese voyages of Vasco da Gama to India.

Paradise Lost

John Milton’s *Paradise Lost*, published in 1667, is often considered the greatest masterpiece of the epic revival, radical in the way it retells the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man: the biting of an apple is magnified to epic proportions, and Satan is portrayed as a complex character reminiscent of an epic hero.


Milton’s use of blank verse was a departure from traditionally rhyming long-form English poems. Its first lines showcase a traditional “invocation of the muse”, emulating Homer:

*Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse,*

Poetic Imitation

The rhetorical practice of “Imitatio”, commonly employed in literature of this era – involved borrowing and adapting ideas, themes, or styles from classical or contemporary authors to create new works of art.

Milton’s poem is exemplary in the way that it underscores the complex relationship between imitation and originality in Renaissance poetry.


For example, his invocation of the muse in Book 1 – a convention of epic, claims that the poem will pursue “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime”.

This line is in fact a direct quotation from Ludivico Ariosto’s epic of 1532, *Orlando Furioso*: “Cosa non detta in prosa mai, né in rima” (Canto I, stanza 2, line 8).

This form of “Imitatio” therefore introduces irony into Milton’s work. This line
it claims to be the first to attempt a work of this kind – yet it is itself a borrowed phrase.

Metaphysical Poetry

“Metaphysical poetry” is a term used to describe a movement of the 17th century associated with the British poets John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell. Their work is characterized by elaborate and intricate metaphors, complex wordplay, and knotty philosophical themes, exploring ideas related to love, religion, and the body.


In order to work through paradoxes, and often to explore the relationship between material and spiritual realms, metaphysical poets made use of “conceits”: extended and elaborate metaphors that draw unexpected and often surprising connections between non-intuitively similar subjects.

For example, John Donne’s “The Flea,” compares a flea bite to the act of lovemaking. The flea, having bitten both the speaker and his beloved, becomes a symbol of their intimate connection.

Augustan Poetry

Augustan poetry is a literary movement that emerged in the early 18th century in England, during the reign of Queen Anne. The term “Augustan” was inspired by the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, which was considered a period of great cultural achievement and stability.


The Augustan poets – most famously John Dryden and Alexander Pope – were drawn to erudition, good manners, and formal structures and styles. They sought to emulate the classical ideals of order, balance, and rationality, which they believed had been lost in the chaos and disorder of the previous century.

The Augustan poets also had a keen interest in satire and parody. One of Pope’s most famous works, “The Rape of the Lock”, tells the story of a young woman whose suitor snips a lock of her hair, causing a household scandal. Pope employs the form and language of an epic to describe the trivial events of the narrative, as if part of a grand, heroic tale, highlighting the shallowness and absurdity of upper class social mores.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

The Origins of Poetry;

Discover poetry's evolutionary origins and the function of poems in early civilizations

Rhetorical and Poetic Devices;

How poetry creates vivid imagery and symbolism using rhetorical devices

Technical Features of Poetry;

Understand the workings of meter and rhyme, and the mechanisms that make a poem tick

Modernist and Post-War Poetry;

An exploration of the movements that emerged during the rapid changes of the early 20th century

Approaches to Interpreting Poetry;

Investigate the various lenses through which poetry can be analyzed and appreciated, from Historicism and Feminist Theory

Poetry Around the World;

Explore the richness and diversity of poetry traditions around the globe, from Africa to Japan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *