Love Poems of the English Renaissance

Marlowe, Jonson, Raleigh and Shakespeare Speak Across Time

Renaissance woman

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The love poems of the English Renaissance (late 15th–early 17th century) are considered to be some of the most romantic of all time. Many of the most famous poets are more well-known as the Elizabethan era playwrights—Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), Ben Jonson (1572–1637), and the most renowned of all, William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

Throughout the medieval period, which preceded the Renaissance, poetry changed dramatically throughout England and Western Europe. Slowly, and with influence from movements like courtly love, the epic ballads of battles and monsters like "Beowulf" were transformed into romantic adventures like the Arthurian legends.

These romantic legends were the precursor to the Renaissance, and as it unfolded, literature and poetry evolved still further and took on a decidedly romantic aura. A more personal style developed, and poems clearly became a way for a poet to reveal his feelings to the one he loved. In the mid-to-late 16th century, there was a virtual flowering of poetic talent in England, influenced by the art and literature of the Italian Renaissance a century before.

Here are some prominent examples of English poetry from the crest of the English Renaissance of letters.

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)

Christopher Marlowe was educated at Cambridge and known for his wit and charm. After he graduated from Cambridge he went to London and joined the Admiral's Men, a group of theatrical players. He soon began writing plays, and those included "Tamburlaine the Great," "Dr. Faustus" and "The Jew of Malta." When he wasn't writing plays he often could be found gambling, and during a game of backgammon one fateful night with three other men he got into a quarrel, and one of them stabbed him to death, ending this most talented writer's life at the age of 29.

Besides plays, he wrote poems. Here's an example:

"Who Ever Loved That Loved Not at First Sight?" 

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate.
When two are stripped, long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should love, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows; let it suffice
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight? 

Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618)

Sir Walter Raleigh was a true Renaissance man: He was a courtier in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and an explorer, adventurer, warrior, and poet. He is famous for putting down his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth in an act of stereotypical chivalry. So it's no surprise that he would be a writer of romantic poetry. After Queen Elizabeth died, he was accused of plotting against her successor King James I and was sentenced to death and was beheaded in 1618.

"The Silent Lover, Part 1"

Passions are liken'd best to floods and streams:
The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb;
So, when affection yields discourse, it seems
The bottom is but shallow whence they come.
They that are rich in words, in words discover
That they are poor in that which makes a lover.

Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

After an unlikely beginning as an adult that included being arrested for acting in a seditious play, killing a fellow actor and spending time in jail, Ben Jonson's first play was put on at the Globe Theatre, complete with William Shakespeare in the cast. It was called "Every Man in His Humour," and it was Jonson's breakthrough moment.

He got in trouble with the law again over "Sejanus, His Fall" and "Eastward Ho," for which he was accused of "popery and treason." Despite these legal troubles and antagonism with fellow playwrights, he became poet laureate of Britain in 1616 and when he died, was buried in Westminster Abbey.

"Come, My Celia"

Come, my Celia, let us prove
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours forever;
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain.
Suns that set may rise again;
But if once we lose this light,
'Tis with us perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumor are but toys
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies,
Or his easier ears beguile,
So removed by our wile?
'Tis no sin love's fruit to steal
But the sweet theft to reveal.
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

The life of William Shakespeare, the greatest poet and writer in the English language, is shrouded in mystery. Only the barest facts of his biography are known: He was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon to a glover and leather merchant who was a prominent leader of the town for a time. He had no college education. He turned up in London in 1592 and by 1594 was acting and writing with the play group the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The group soon opened the now-legendary Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare's plays were performed. He was one of the most, if not the most, successful playwright of his time, and in 1611 he returned to Stratford and bought a substantial house. He died in 1616 and was buried in Stratford. In 1623 two of his colleagues published the First Folio edition of his Collected Works. As much as a playwright, he was a poet, and none of his sonnets is more famous than this one.

Sonnet 18: "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" 

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Hattaway, Michael. "A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture." London: John Wiley * Sons, 2008. 
  • Rhodes, Neil. "The Power of Eloquence and English Renaissance Literature." London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992. 
  • Spearing, A. C. "Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 
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Snell, Melissa. "Love Poems of the English Renaissance." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 28). Love Poems of the English Renaissance. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Love Poems of the English Renaissance." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).