Flirting with Eternity

Teaching Form and Meter in a Renaissance Poetry Course
  • Elizabeth Harris Sagaser


Teaching form and meter is essential to teaching Renaissance literature. Certainly, it is essential to bringing Renaissance poetry to life in all its drive for dignity, defiance of death, and seductive splendor. And it is essential to any inquiry into the nature and history of poetry. But even if one is not interested in teaching poetics per se in a Renaissance course, some attention to formal verse is essential. To skip over the question of meter is to encourage students to ignore a vital sixteenth- and seventeenth-century aesthetic and those aspects of early modern English culture within which that aesthetic thrived. It is to encourage them to believe that formal verse occurred arbitrarily—maybe simply because of poets’ lack of sophistication, lack of enlightenment, or absence of rebellious spirit, while in many instances such assumptions could not be further from the truth. Indeed, the more one might want to ground a study of Renaissance literature in historical awareness or cultural criticism, the more one cannot ignore basic questions such as why—politically, philosophically, psychologically—a culture would develop form and meter so intensely.


Sensual Pleasure Historical Awareness Unstressed Syllable Paradise Lost Individual Voice 
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  1. 5.
    These first lines are from, respectively, Shakespeare’s Sonnets 17 and 53, Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” Milton’s Sonnet 7, Wyatt “They flee from me” and “Whoso List to Hunt,” Shakespeare’s Sonnets 64 and 138, Herbert’s “Love III,” and Milton’s Sonnet 23. All quotations from Shakespeare’s Sonnets are from Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); all quotations from Milton are from The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998); all other poems in this paragraph are quoted from The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 1996).Google Scholar
  2. 12.
    Excellent analyses of meter’s representation of collective versus individual voice are in Antony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse (London: Methuen, 1983),Google Scholar
  3. especially chapters 3–5, and John Thompson’s The Founding of English Meter (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961). Students with a theoretical bent should read Easthope, and art majors and minors especially might like to consider Easthope’s comparison of iambic pentameter in poetry to the discovery of perspective in art.Google Scholar
  4. These students might also benefit from S. K. Heninger, Jr., The Subtext of Form in the English Renaissance: Proportion Poetical (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); Heninger emphasizes the kinship between poetic form and contemporary art.Google Scholar
  5. 21.
    Campion, Thomas, Observations in the Arte of English Poetry, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), 129.Google Scholar
  6. 25.
    Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” in The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, trans. Lydia Davis, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York, Station Hill, 1981), 46.Google Scholar
  7. 31.
    Quoted from Geoffrey Hill, New and Collected Poems, 1952–92 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994).Google Scholar

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© Mark David Rasmussen 2002

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  • Elizabeth Harris Sagaser

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