Literature and Form in the Renaissance

Brown, Richard Danson (2022). Literature and Form in the Renaissance. In: Rabinowitz, Paula and Hadfield, Andrew eds. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.



The literature of the Renaissance period was highly conscious of the language of form, yet at the same time, much has changed since the sixteenth century, even though the terms in English seem to be continuous. ‘Form’ is at once ambiguous, questionable, and has ramifications for a number of fields, including issues of line, metre and versification on the one hand and broader questions of genre on the other. A case study of the verse line in English during the sixteenth century shows in practice the tensions between humanist idealism and vernacular traditions, as writers of different generations struggled to find a form which would best capture the potential of a politically marginal, culturally ambitious, language. The sonnet is then considered as a morphic form of enormous influence which shaped thinking and practice throughout Europe; discussion includes texts by Louise Labé, Edmund Spenser, and Anne Locke. Finally, the typically Renaissance form of the stanzaic epic showcases another novel form, illustrated by the interlocking stanzas of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-96), and the ironic mimicking of that form with difference in Donne’s Metempsychosis (dated 1601 but not published until 1633).

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