Major Poetic Movements In the English Language Old English Poetry

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Major Poetic Movements

In the English Language

Old English Poetry

Anglo-Saxon Period: 6th-11th Century

Old English Poetic Conventions

  • Elegiac mood: the transitoriness of life

    • Ubi sunt: Where are they (who have gone before) ???
  • Heroic mode: active, loyal to kinship group, boastful

  • The inevitability of Wyrd: fate

  • Figures of speech:

    • Kennings: two words as metaphor for one: hron-rāde whale-road – sea; hord-cofan word-hoard – mind, thoughts
    • Litotes: ironic understatement -- "That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now." (Beowulf)
  • Alliterative verse: alliteration is used as the principal device to unify lines of poetry


  • Thula: alliterative lists of names or tribes

  • Gnomic verse: proverbs, traditional wisdom

  • Spells: invoke natural and supernatural powers

  • Riddles: what am I?

  • Adaptations of classical philosophical texts: e.g. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy

  • Wisdom poetry: lyrical, meditative, elegiac – “The Wanderer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” etc.

  • Heroic court poetry: celebration of historical events related by scops: Beowulf, etc.

  • Religious poetry: retellings of Old Testament stories, saints’ lives, etc.

Known A-S Poets

  • Cædmon: herdsman attached to the Whitby monastery during the abbacy of St. Hilda (657–681). Author of “Hymn,” oldest A-S poem

  • The Venerable Bede (c. 672-735): Benedictine monk at Jarrow; author of the Historia Ecclesiastica: The History of the Church of England and “Bede’s Death Song”

  • Cynewulf (fl. ca. 750): author of four poems, Christian narratives, Elene, Christ II, Juliana and The Fates of the Apostles.

  • King Alfred (849-99)

Bede’s “Death Song”


  • Alliterative lists of names and tribes

  • Oral mnemonic device

  • Found extensively in Widsith

  • Technique also found in Old Testament

Spells & Charms


I war with the wind, with the waves I wrestle; I must battle with both when the bottom I seek, My strange habitation by surges o’er-roofed. I am strong in the strife, while still I remain; As soon as I stir, they are stronger than I. They wrench and they wrest, till I run from my foes; What was put in my keeping they carry away. If my back be not broken, I baffle them still. The rocks are my helpers, when hard I am pressed; Grimly I grip them. Guess what I’m called.

Wisdom Poetry

  • Lyrical: expressions of feelings, meditations on life

  • Emphasis on transitoriness of fame, glory, kinship, life itself: ubi sunt theme

  • Boethian in exploration of fickle fortune Boethius: author of The Consolation of Philosophy

  • Most found in Exeter Book: “The Ruin,” “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Husband’s Message”

  • King Alfred: author of “Lays of Boethius”

Heroic Court Poetry

  • Narrative oral compositions handed down from generation to generation

  • Interactive: warriors in the audience were given their turns to boast: to proclaim their self-worth in a stylized solo declamation, which all recognized as a beot or gilph (boast).

  • Celebrations or commemorations of cultural heroes and historic events

  • Sung at court feasts which also included mead drinking, gift giving, harp playing and displaying of trophies

The Scop

  • Court singer

  • Historian

  • Genealogist

  • Teacher

  • Composer

  • Critic

  • Warrior

  • Reporter

Anglo-Saxon Heroic Poems

  • Beowulf (c. 700-1000)

  • Fragments: The Fight at Finnsburh and Waldere

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains various heroic poems inserted throughout.

First page of Beowulf from the Cotton Vitellius MS.

Beowulf Prologue

Beowulf: Prologue

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heoric campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,

a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

This terror of the hall-troops had come far.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on

as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts

beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king

Translated by Seamus Heaney

Beowulf Prologue: Alliteration

Religious Poetry

  • Narrative poems: often incorporate elements of heroic poetry

    • Saints’lives: Elene, Andreas, Guthlac, Juliana,
    • Retelling of Old Testament stories: Daniel, Judith
  • Biblical paraphrases: Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Gloria in Excelsis,” etc.

  • Lyrical poems

  • Debates: “Christ and Satan”

  • Dream vision: “The Dream of the Rood”

Junius MS: Angel Guarding the Gates of Paradise

Middle English Poetry

Medieval Period: 11th-15th century

Narrative Genres

  • Epics

  • Breton lais

  • Romances

  • Fabliaux

  • Beast fables and bestiaries


  • Story of heroic adventure often encompassing courtly love

  • A chivalrous, heroic knight, who, abiding chivalry's strict codes, fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favour with a beautiful but fickle princess.

14th Century Poetic Romances

  • Arthurian

    • Alliterative Mort Arthure
    • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    • Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”
    • Stanzaic Mort Artu
  • Non-Arthurian

    • Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde
    • Gower, Confessio Amantis
    • Popular romances

Breton Lais

  • Short, rhymed tales of love and chivalry

  • Breton/Celtic troubadour influence

  • Courtliness and magic

  • Investigations into the intricacies of love and honor

  • The Lais of Marie de France –11thc.

Middle English Breton Lais

  • “Sir Orfeo,” “Sir Degaré,” “Sir Gowther,” “Emaré” and “The Erle of Tolouse,” all by anonymous authors

  • “Lay le Freine,” a translation of Marie de France's “Le Fresne”

  • “The Franklin's Tale” from the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

  • “Sir Launfal” by Thomas Chestre (a retelling of a translation of Marie de France's “Lanval”)

  • “Lai du Cor” by Robert Biket

Secular Lyric Poetry

  • Ballades: poems with at least three stanzas having the same rhyme and metrical schemes and repeating the same last line: refrain

  • Complaints

  • Reverdies: spring songs

  • Love Songs

    • Courtly Love
    • Aubades: poem or song about lovers parting at dawn

Courtly Love

  • Humility

  • Courtesy

  • Adultery

  • The Religion of Love

Religious Lyric Poetry

    • Devotional songs
    • Hymns
    • Marian lyrics (praise of the Virgin Mary)
    • Carols

Geoffrey Chaucer c. 1343-1400

The Canterbury Tales The Ellesmere Manuscript 15th c. ms. Huntington Library

The Prologue

The Prologue

When April with his showers sweet with fruit The drought of March has pierced unto the root And bathed each vein with liquor that has power To generate therein and sire the flower; When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath, Quickened again, in every holt and heath, The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun Into the Ram one half his course has run, And many little birds make melody That sleep through all the night with open eye (So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)- Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage, And palmers to go seeking out strange strands, To distant shrines well known in sundry lands. And specially from every shire's end Of England they to Canterbury wend, The holy blessed martyr there to seek Who helped them when they lay so ill and sick.

Geoffrey Chaucer the Pilgrim the Poet

The route from London to Canterbury Cathedral

Renaissance Poetry

Tudor Period: Reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII,

Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I: 1485-1603

Renaissance Poetic Modes

  • Pastoral: concerned with shepherds and shepherdesses, celebrating the leisure, contentment and simplicity of country life.

  • Heroic: valued honor, courage, loyalty, leadership and glorified the nation.

  • Lyric: explored and expressed emotions from love to scorn to despair.

  • Satiric: mocked social conventions, hypocrisy and stupidity.

  • Elegiac: mourned the loss of individuals or the past.

  • Dramatic: the language of the stage

    • Tragic
    • Comic
    • “…tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical historical, scene individable or poem unlimited.” Hamlet

The Path to Fame and Fortune

  • Elizabethan poets were in love with the English language and what they could do with it.

  • They revelled in figures of speech, patterns of syntax, invention of ornamentation.

  • Bright young aristocrats haunted the court seeking favor of preferment by the brilliance of their poetic efforts.

  • Commoners went to the theatre to seek public adulation and aristocratic patronage for their talents.

  • See: The Sonnet and Elizabethan Theatre

Development of the Sonnet

  • The first sonnets were written in Italy in the Thirteenth Century, most notably by Dante and Petrarch.

  • The Italian sonnet was introduced into English poetry by the translations of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Henry Surrey.

  • English writers began to imitate their earlier Italian counterparts by writing sonnets in the English vernacular.

  • The most important sonnet sequences written in English were written by

    • Edmund Spenser (Amoretti , published in 1595),
    • Sir Philip Sidney (Astrophel and Stella, published in 1582),
    • William Shakespeare (his untitled sequence of 154 sonnets was published in 1609).
  • By the reign of Queen Elizabeth, sonnet production became the vogue for its aspiring writers

  • See: The Sonnet

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene

  • Booke I: The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or of Holinesse

  • Booke II: The Legend of Sir Guyon, or of Temperance

  • Booke III: The Legend of Britomartis, or of Chastitie

  • Book IV: The Legend of Cambel and Telamond, or of Friendship

  • Book V: The Legend of Artegall, or of Justice

  • Booke VI: The Legend of St. Calidore, or of Courtesie

  • Booke VII: Two Cantos of Mutabilitie

Genres of The Faerie Queene

  • Epic

    • Influenced by Virgilian tradition
    • Mirrors contemporary European poets: Arisosto, Tasso, Camoens
    • Influences on:
    • John Milton, Paradise Lost
    • William Blake, Jerusalem
    • Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
  • Chivalric Romance: influenced by Arthurian romance

  • Courtesy Book: the moral formation of the ideal Protestant Gentleman

  • Propaganda: anti-Roman Catholic, pro Queen Elizabeth

  • Fantasy

    • Influences on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis
  • Allegory

    • Moral
    • Historical
  • Games of Illusion and Delusion – watch disguises!

The Spenserian Stanza

  • The Spenserian stanza is a fixed verse form.

  • Each stanza contains nine lines in total: eight lines in iambic pentameter followed by a single 'Alexandrine' line in iambic hexameter.

  • The rhyme scheme of these lines is "ababbcbcc."

  • Spenser's invention may have been influenced by the Italian form ottava rima, which consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme "abababcc."

  • Another possible influence is rhyme royal, a traditional mediæval form used by Geoffrey Chaucer, among others, which has seven lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme "ababbcc."

17th Century Poetry

Jacobean Poetic Modes

  • Classical Modes

    • Epigram: short witty poem that compresses wit and insight
    • Ode: lyric poem addressed to a person, natural force or abstraction – written in elevated style – often a poem of praise
    • Satire: Complaint on the ills of society
    • Love Elegy: Meditation on trials of erotic desire written in couplets (aabbcc, etc)
  • Country House Poem: compliment to a wealthy patron or friend through a description of his country house

  • Verse Epistle: Letter written in poetic verse

  • Meditative Religious Lyric

  • Occasional Poem: poem written to commemorate a particular occasion or event.

Aemilia Lanyer 1569-1645

First Englishwoman to publish a book of poetry: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611
    • Feminist bent --“Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women”
    • First published country house poem – “The Description of Cookham”

Ben Jonson 1572-1637

  • Poet and Playwright

  • England’s first Poet Laureate (King’s pension)

  • 1616: Works (first English writer to publish his collected works)

  • Classicist: influenced by Roman genres and ideals

    • Epigrams
    • Odes
    • Satire
  • “Tribe of Ben” – younger poets who emulated Jonson and are often classified as Cavalier poets – Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Edmund Waller, Sir John Suckling

Cavalier Poetry Cavalier : courtly, off-hand, loyal to the monarchy

  • Graceful, melodious, polished diction and meter

  • Elegant display of Latin classical influences

  • Themes of love and honor, loyalty and friendship

  • Carpe diem (Seize the day)a frequent theme

  • Sometimes licentious and cynical

  • Often epigrammatic and witty 

  • Persona often in guise of military swashbuckler or aristocratic courtier

  • Poems are often occasional -- i.e. written for a particular occasion

John Donne 1572-1631

  • Poet and Preacher

  • Startling images that range from the exquisite to the grotesque

  • Wit and allusion

  • Satires

  • Elegies

  • Occasional poems

  • Songs and Sonnets

  • Holy Sonnets

  • Critics describe Donne as the foremost Metaphysical poet influencing Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Marvell, Traherne and Crowley

Metaphysical Poetry Metaphysics: the branch of philosophy that systematically investigates the nature of first principles and the problems of ultimate reality:

  • Startling rhythm and diction

  • Variety of tones

  • Poets speak in their own persona or create dramatically different characters: self-dramatization more than self-expression, internal dramatic conflict

  • Meter and stanzas are used to enact emotion -- emphasis on action, tension, conflict

  • Use of argumentation, logic, dialectical expression

  • Original and startling metaphors and similes, often extended into metaphysical conceits

  • Content is often religious

  • Sensuousness, directness, immediacy

Lady Mary Wroth 1587-1651?

  • Niece of Sir Philip Sidney and Countess Mary Sidney Herbert

  • Lived and educated at Penshurst

  • 1621 published:

    • The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania – prose romance with poems
    • Pamphilia and Amphilanthus: poem sequence with 103 sonnets and songs –female voice and perspective
  • Love’s Victory: pastoral drama

  • Patroness to poets, including Ben Jonson

Civil and Culture Wars, 1640-60

  • 1642: closed the theatres

  • 1643: Toleration Controversy

  • Rump Parliament proclaimed “a republic without king or house of lords”

  • Disagreement over suffrage

  • Emphasis on “inner light” as truth

  • Flourishing debates in journals and tracts: freedom of the press

Interregnum 1649-1660

  • 1649-53 Republic/ Commonwealth

  • 1653: Parliament dissolved

  • 1653-58 Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell

  • 1658-60 Protectorate under Richard Cromwell (resigned)

John Milton 1608-1674

  • Radical political and philosophical thinker--advocated and supported:

    • Companionate marriage and defended divorce
    • The new science and astronomy
    • Freedom of the press: Areopagitica
    • Religious liberty and toleration
    • Republicanism
  • Puritan apologist and defender

    • The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
    • Latin Secretary to Cromwell

John Milton 1608-1674

  • Poet

    • “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”
    • “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” – celebrations of Mirth and Melancholy
    • Comus -- mythological masque
    • “Lycidas” – pastoral elegy
    • Sonnets
    • Paradise Lost
    • Paradise Regained
    • Samson Agonistes

The Restoration of the Monarchy Charles II, r. 1660-1685

ARTIFICE: The Augustan Age

  • Art as an improvement upon nature

  • Neo-classical ideals: balance, harmony, reason

  • Gardens

  • Landscape painting

  • Rise of literary criticism

  • Major poetic forms:

    • Heroic couplets: rhymed iambic pentameter
    • Epics and mock epics
    • Poetic essays
    • Occasional poems

Alexander Pope 1688-1744

Alexander Pope 1688-1744

Colonial American Poetry


Various modes and genres

  • Descriptive poems from explorers and early settlers

  • Drinking songs

  • Religious and moral poetry: Puritan ideals

  • Secular lyrics

Anne Bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet

c. 1612-1672

The Romantics

English Poetry 1785-1830

Neo-Classicism vs Romanticism

  • Greek/Roman influence

  • Emphasis on Society

  • Age of Reason

    • Rationality
    • Philosophy
    • Deism
  • Euro-centric

  • Cities and Gardens

  • Enlightenment

    • Science

Women Lead the Way

William Blake 1757-1827

  • Poet, painter, printer, engraver

  • Revolutionary

  • Bard

  • Prophet

  • Visionary

“He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God.

He who sees the Ratio sees himself only.”

The Limitations of Innocence

Visions of the Daughters of Albion

The Transcendance of the Imagination Jerusalem

Lyrical Ballads, 1798, 1800, 1802

  • Poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Heralds the beginning of the Romantic Period in England

  • Poetry that uses normal, everyday language

  • Emphasis on the voice of the living poet

  • “The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure.”

Lyric Poetry

  • Search for an authentic language of feeling rather than artifice

  • Wordsworth: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility”

  • 1st person voice of the poem – during this period usually associated with the poet – sometimes biographical and confessional

  • Revived older poetic forms:

    • blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter
    • the sonnet
    • the ballad
    • the ode

The Poet as Rock Star

The Transcendentalists

America in the early 19th Century

Transcendentalist Movement

  • Began September 8, 1836, when a group of prominent New England intellectuals, led by poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, met at the Transcendental Club in Boston. 

  • A philosophical movement protesting the state of culture – especially political parties and organized religion.

  • Advocated individual self-reliance and independence – humans are inherently good.

  • Major figures in the movement were Ralph Waldo EmersonHenry David ThoreauJohn MuirMargaret Fuller and Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott).

  • A reaction against 18th century Rationalism and New England Puritanism, it was influenced by German Idealism (Immanuel Kant) and Vedic (Indian) spiritualism.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882

  • Essayist, lecturer and poet

  • Founder of Transcendentalism – expounded principles in the essay, “Nature,” 1836

  • Encouraged and critically supported Thoreau and Whitman

Emerson began to write poetry in St. Augustine, FL, where he went to regain his health in 1827

Saint Augustine


There liest thou little city of the Deep

And always hearest the unceasing sound

Both day & night in summer & in frost

The loud sea lashing thy resounding beach

Great ocean

The roar of waters on thy coral shore.


But in thy gentle clime

Even the rude sea forgets his savageness

Feels the ray of that benignant sun

And pours warm billows up the shelly shore.

O fair befall thee gentle town!

The prayer of those who thank thee for their life.


But much is here

That can beguile the months of banishment

Within the small peninsula of sand

Of present pleasure and romantic past

The faint traces of romantic things

The old land of America

I find in this nook of sand

The first footprints of that giant grown.


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1827)

Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

  • Poet, philosopher, naturalist, abolitionist

  • Best known for his books, Walden and Civil Disobedience

  • Although not highly regarded by his contemporary critics, Thoreau has had a profound effect on such varied figures as Tolstoy, Ghandi, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King as well as a wide range of 20th century authors.

Free Love

Free Love

by Henry D. Thoreau

MY love must be as free  As is the eagle's wing,  Hovering o'er land and sea  And every thing.

I must not dim my eye  In thy saloon,  I must not leave my sky  And nightly moon.

Be not the fowler's net  Which stays my flight,  And craftily is set  T' allure the sight,

But be the favoring gale  That bears me on,  And still doth fill my sail  When thou art gone.

I cannot leave my sky  For thy caprice,  True love would soar as high  As heaven is.

The eagle would not brook  Her mate thus won,  Who trained his eye to look  Beneath the sun.

19th Century American Poets

The forging of a literary tradition

The Fireside Poets

  • Popular New England poets known for their adherence to poetic conventions – rhyme, meter and standard forms.

  • Their poetry was particularly suitable for memorization and school recitation.

  • Subjects: domestic life, mythology and U.S. history and politics.

  • Wrote for the common man.

Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849

  • Author, poet, editor, literary critic

  • Associated with Romantic movement

  • Early short story writer; considered the inventor of detective fiction

  • His first publication was Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827)

“Annabel Lee” was Poe’s last poem. Probably composed in May, 1849, it was first published in the New York Daily Tribune on October 9, 1849, two days after Poe’s death.

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

  • Influenced by 17th c. Metaphysical poets, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats.

  • Poetry was published posthumously.

  • Often used the traditional ballad stanza with common meter: 4 lines alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, rhyming abcb

  • Uniquely American voice

Wild nights

Wild Nights – Wild Nights! Were I with thee Wild Nights should be Our luxury!

Futile – the winds – To a heart in port – Done with the compass – Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden – Ah, the sea! Might I moor – Tonight – In thee!

Walt Whitman 1819-1892

  • Poet, journalist, essayist, volunteer Civil War nurse

  • "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.“

  • Transition between Transcendentalism and Realism

  • The Father of Free Verse -- probably the most influential American poet

Leaves of Grass

  • First edition published July 4, 1855 – 12 poems

  • Whitman revised and expanded the collection throughout his life – last edition published in 1892 – almost 400 poems

  • Unarguably the most important collection of American poetry.

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Victorian Poets

English Poetry in the last half of the 19th Century

Victorian Poetry

  • Highly pictorial – “picturesque” – combines visual impressions to create a picture that carries the dominant emotion of the poem

  • Narrative

    • Long narrative stories – poetic novels:
    • Tennyson’s Idylls of the King
    • Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh
    • Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book
    • Dramatic monologues – esp. Robert Browning
  • Poetry of mood and character

    • Distinctive sound experimentation


Sonnets from the Portugese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  • 44 love sonnets written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, Robert Browning

The Pre-Raphaelites

English Aestheticism


  • “Art for art’s sake”

  • Most Pre-Raphaelites were both poets and painters

  • A cult of beauty: Life should imitate Art

  • Strong connection between visual and literary arts

  • Anti-Victorian reaction, post-Romantic roots

  • The Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages

  • Pre-Raphaelites and Arts and Crafts Movement

Modernist Poets

War Poets

The Surrealists

The Harlem Renaissance

The Beats

The Late 20th Century

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