Politics and Poetry: Early Modern English Poetry

I like to write poetry. I can’t say I’m the best at it, but I’ve been published a few times and I continue to study rhetoric and poetic form as well as continue to try to write and publish the work that I do. I’m also a passionate person when it comes to politics and social justice. My major in college was English, but my minor was political science.

So often when I write, I write politically-themed poetry. This struck one of my friends as odd. When I got to thinking about the link between politics and poetry, though, I have to say it’s really not all that odd for politics and poetry to be combined.

Politics and poetry have always been aligned. Poetry has always been a place for marginalized people to make their voices heard or to covertly challenge those in power. Today poetry continues to be an arena for social commentary and pushes for social change, and, above all else, a way for people to make their voices and opinions heard.

Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes.

Early Modern English Poets

Also known as the English Renaissance, this period lasted from the late 15th century into the cusp of the 18th century and was filled with political turmoil. Protestant and catholic monarchs kept being crowned which meant every time the power passed between faiths, the people of this time period were expected to convert. The idea behind a monarchy is that the political leader, the king or queen, is ordained by the Christian God to be in power. So when a protestant was in power, everyone from the nobles to the peasants were expected to convert and to believe, in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Then when a Catholic took the throne, the people would again have to convert and know that in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Some monarchs, like Elizabeth I, said, you know what? This isn’t fair. As long as you practice the faith you believe in, I don’t care if your religion matches mine. That worked for about five minutes, until Pope Regnans in Excelsis said that, because she was a protestant, she was not the legitimate Queen of England and anyone who assassinated her was doing God a service and would be forgiven. Now Elizabeth had to be wary of all Catholics, which did little to ease political tensions in the time period. Add in some international conflicts, like wars between England and Spain, and mix in a Virgin Queen and the fear of no apparent heir causing another War of the Roses (for you Game of Throne fans, the War of the Roses is the political conflict that inspired the fantasy series) and you get a lot of turmoil and a lot to criticize.

During this time of constant conversion, poets like John Donne issued a challenge through his poem Satire III to the logic behind forced conversion with such lines as:

Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.

Donne states that God has not given Kings the right to force conversion, nor execute the populous for their religious beliefs. In England during the Early Modern Period, religion and politics were intertwined so criticizing the way the crown handled religion was a political issue and one, as Donne alludes to in this poem, that can lead to execution.

William Shakespeare also wrote politically, but not as openly as some of his time period peers like Donne. Sonnet 116, while widely held as a romantic poem and often read at weddings, can also be read politically.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Looking at the first line of the sonnet, “Let me not” opens the sonnet with a negative wish. It means whatever else the speaker of the sonnet agrees to, he will not he will not agree to “the marriage of true minds.” The second aspect of the first line, “the marriage of true minds,” suggestions agreement in thought or an alignment of ideas. So the framing of the sonnet is that the speaker does not agree that people have to be in agreement in thought all the time. Shakespeare wrote subtly, which is why his plays could criticize the crown and be performed in court in front of Queens and Kings, and I feel this sonnet is more of the same. Instead of thinking of the “love” in this sonnet as a love between people, think of it as a love between a person and their faith or God, and it works as another criticism of the conversion the people of England had to go through.

Satire III wasn’t Donne’s only criticism of the crown. Donne took issue with England’s naval battle against Spain and describes his own involvement in the war in poem The Storm.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0ISBmoyqU4?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

He further goes on to explore the calm after battle in his poem, The Calm, and how no such thing really exists, for there is no political or social calm occurring in England in this time period. The last two lines of the poem are especially politically loaded:

We have no power, no will, no sense; I lie,
I should not then thus feel this misery.

Is the speaker really lying in this poem, though? The entire poem is about his misery, and he chalks it up to the lack of power, will, and sense the people are are allowed to have in this period. I read the line “I lie,/I should not then thus feel this misery” as conditional, meaning the speaker is either lying and is really happy or he’s telling the truth and he’s miserable. Given the rest of the poem, I opt to interpret the lie as a lie and the misery as truth – a misery caused by the lack of calm, the lack of power, the lack of will, and the lack of sense after a period of war.

Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, used his epic poem to try to politically influence Queen Elizabeth I, dedicating the work to her and sending it directly to her. While the story is an allegory, Spenser spends Books III of The Faerie Queene trying to redefine chastity so that Queen Elizabeth I would still be chaste if she married a man and procreated. Spenser, like others of his period, was afraid of what would happen if another War of the Roses broke out due to the lack of an apparent heir to the throne of England. Britomart, the hero that represents Chastity in the story, is on a marriage quest to find her true love. Spenser was trying to show that chastity can continue past virginity if the chaste woman only procreates after marriage.

Considering the fact that she never married nor had children, I don’t think Queen Elizabeth I bought it, but it wasn’t for lack of Spenser trying.

This is in no way a comprehensive list of all the political poetry or poets of the time period, but it’s a good start and helps prove that politics and poetry are not mutually exclusive and have existed intertwined for hundreds of years.


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