An Introduction to Shakespeare's Poems by Peter Hyland

By Peter Hyland

An creation to Shakespeare's Poems presents a full of life and trained exam of Shakespeare's non-dramatic poetry: the narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; the Sonnets; and diverse minor poems, together with a few just recently attributed to Shakespeare. Peter Hyland locates Shakespeare as a sceptical voice in the turbulent social context within which Elizabethan specialist poets needed to paintings, and relates his poems to the tastes, values and political pressures of his time. Hyland additionally explores how Shakespeare's poetry may be of curiosity to twenty-first century readers.

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What he meant by ‘a hard welcome’ was not just general indifference, but an increasing moral hostility, a pressure of censure from positions that combined the Puritan condemnation of poetry as a source of corruption with the Neoplatonic dismissal (using Plato’s Republic as authority) of artists as liars who promote the illusory over the real. In his essay Sidney countered these attacks and championed poetry over the more pragmatic modes of discourse represented by philosophy and history. I am not here concerned with how Sidney defended and sought to promote poetry, however, but rather with why he felt it necessary to do so.

The evolution of the vernacular language, enriched by borrowings from French and Latin, was inevitable, however, and Chaucer was not the only writer of his time to recognize its literary potential. Since all writing of the period existed only in manuscript form, much must have been lost, but works by the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remain, as does The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland, and the works of Chaucer’s friend John Gower. From the early part of the fifteenth century we can add to these the work of numerous imitators of Chaucer, including John Lydgate, and Sir Thomas Malory’s versions of Arthurian romances.

The theatre itself is a marketplace in this sense. When Shakespeare was writing, the book trade was still in the very early stages of its development. The first printing press in England had been established by William Caxton in 1477, hardly more than a century before Shakespeare began his literary career. Even in London the writer’s market was limited. Books were very expensive and the percentage of the population that was literate was still small, though increasing. The demand for printed books was likewise small, and while there was an enthusiastic readership willing to pay for the kinds of poetry that were in fashion, a poet who depended for his living on people buying his books could hardly expect to flourish.

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