He resembles the Elizabethans in preferring magnificent to commonplace images. It has been often noticed that if he essays to write of buildings in general, he prefers to describe palaces. His knowledge of the intellectual side of human nature is especially remarkable, but, unlike Shakespeare, Bacon never drops his plummet into the emotional depths of the soul.
A Medium of Artistic Expression.—No age has surpassed the Elizabethan in lyrical poems, those “short swallow flights of song,” as Tennyson defines them. The English Renaissance, unlike the Italian, did not achieve great success in painting. The Englishman embodied in poetry his artistic expression of the beautiful. Many lyrics are merely examples of word painting. The Elizabethan poet often began his career by trying to show his skill with the ingenious and musical arrangement of words, where an Italian would have used color and drawing on an actual canvas.
We have seen that in the reign of Henry VIII. Wyatt and Surrey introduced into England from Italy the type of lyrical verse known as the sonnet. This is the most artificial of lyrics, because its rules prescribe a length of exactly fourteen lines and a definite internal structure.
The sonnet was especially popular with Elizabethan poets. In the last ten years of the sixteenth century, more than two thousand sonnets were written. Even Shakespeare served a poetic apprenticeship by writing many sonnets as well as semi-lyrical poems, like Venus and Adonis.
We should, however, remember that the sonnet is only one type of the varied lyric expression of the age. Many Elizabethan song books show that lyrics were set to music and used on the most varied occasions. There were songs for weddings, funerals, dances, banquets,—songs for the tinkers, the barbers, and other workmen. If modern readers chance to pick up an Elizabethan novel, like Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590), they are surprised to find that prose will not suffice for the lover, who must “evaporate” into song like this:—
“Love in my bosom like a bee,
Doth suck his sweet.
Now with his wings he plays with me,
Now with his feet.”
There are large numbers of Elizabethan lyrics apparently as spontaneous and unfettered as the song of the lark. The seeming artlessness of much of this verse should not blind us to the fact that an unusual number of poets had really studied the art of song.
Love Lyrics.—The subject of the Elizabethan sonnets is usually love. Sir Philip Sidney wrote many love sonnets, the best of which is the one beginning:—
“With how sad steps. O Moon, thou climb’st the Skies!”
Edmund Spencer composed fifty-eight sonnets in one year to chronicle his varied emotions as a lover. We may find among Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets some of the greatest love lyrics in the language, such, for instance, as CXVI., containing the lines:—