English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems
selected and introduced by John Williams
NYRB Classics (2016)
Originally published in 1963
358 pp

After publishing Butcher’s Crossing in 1960 and while working on Stoner, which would come out in 1965, John Williams, one of my favorite authors of all time, edited and introduced a compilation of English Renaissance Poetry. While we may think of Williams, if we think of him at all (and I hope we do), as a novelist who wrote three masterpieces, Williams also dabbled in poetry, publishing two collections, and was an academic at the University of Denver, which is where he was working when he put this volume together. When one reads Stoner, one can sense Williams’ deep appreciation for literature and poetry. This volume, naturally, opens that up even more, and we come to see an enthusiastic scholar who doesn’t simply accept the status quo, even when it comes to lines written some four hundred years before.

English Renaissance Poetry Cover

For fans of John Williams, those of us who hunger for his words, this is no slight curiosity. Not only does Williams introduce the volume itself, but he has also written brief introductions to each of the twenty-four poets he has selected. Obviously, aside from being a fan of Williams it helps if you have an interest in English renaissance poetry, but Williams is an enthusiastic teacher, and he applies his novelist’s perspective to the underlying movements and biographical stories. For example, here is a bit from his introduction to George Gascoigne, one of his favorite poets:

In virtually every calling that he followed, Gascoigne was a failure; he failed as a courtier, he failed as a gentleman farmer, he failed as a soldier — a series of defeats movingly explained and justified in his greatest poem, Gascoigne’s Woodmanship.

For Williams, there were three broad movements in English renaissance poetry that shaped poetry for centuries. First, there was the Native tradition, a straightforward form of poetry common before the influence of Petrarch produced the second tradition, the aptly named Petrarchan tradition. Williams explains that the Petrarchan tradition adopted a more ornate and abstract style that, rather than focus on concrete concepts like the Nativists did, focused on metaphor and atmosphere to explore things like love.

While both of these traditions produced fantastic poetry (and quite a bit of drivel, as Williams comically explores in his introduction), they had their linguistic and stylistic limitations. That’s where the third, more difficult to name, tradition comes in, the tradition that meshed the Nativist and Petrarchan traditions into one flexible tradition practiced by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Williams does accept the genius of Shakespeare and the more sophisticated style of the third tradition. However, he is quick to step up and defend the first two traditions as well. Even in their limitations, there is a lot of remarkable poetry that often, regrettably, goes unremarked by those quick to jump to Shakespeare.

In organizing this volume, Williams says that his primary goal was to pick and showcase the best poetry. While he could illustrate his points with bad poetry, what’s the point, he seems to suggest. This fittingly comes from the man who would say that “to read without joy is stupid.”

I actually have not read all of the poetry included in this volume — it’s 344 pages of work that should not be rushed — but I have read all of Williams’ words and have been dipping my toes in the poetry each day for a while. It’s a lovely collection, compiled by a person with clear discipline. For someone like me who really just jumped right to Shakespeare, with a few pit stops to check out some of his contemporaries, this is an invaluable look at the richness of the poetry during the whole of that tumultuous century.

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