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Penguins on Parade: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse!

By (April 21, 2016) No Comment


pengbkrenverseSome Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted before here at Stevereads, are genuinely impressive works of scholarship in their own right, and I recently came across one of those during a foray at the Brattle Bookshop: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, edited by David Norbook – in this case, the 2005 update to the 1992 original.

This plump volume – 900 pages – has everything you’d want from such a thing: micro-typed End Notes, a huge variety of authors from the English Renaissance (the title’s slight misleading in that way: it’s not exactly that Renaissance), and a long Introduction by Norbook that’s just brimming with fantastic insights delivered with almost staccato speed, including this great bit about the pragmatic side of the literary endeavor (a side it very much had in common with the Renaissance then bubbling in Italy):

The immediate response of an active life for an ambitious young writer lay not in dreaming of Roman antiquity but in serving the Crown. The prospect of an alliance with the Crown was an appealing one for many poets in the period. In adopting the demonstrative rhetoric of the court, writing panegyrics of the ruler and leading courtiers, they could think of themselves as in effect writing the script of the public world, fulfilling the humanist imperative of making their verbal skill serve the State. The resultant compromises with courtly discourse, however, were often uneasy.

The years covered by this book, from 1509 to 1659, encompass a roll-call of writers that can stand comparison with any similar time-frame in history. This was the era of John Skelton, Henry Howard, Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, John Harington, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Robert Herrick, Margaret Cavendish, and George Herbert. This was the time of Marlowe, Milton, and Shakespeare.

And Anonymous, whose work Norbook is a trifle too eager to include. Considering how many giants were writing during the period he examines, readers might perhaps have done without the limp doggerel of things like “On Sir Francis Drake”:


Sir Drake whom well the world’s end knew,

Which thou did’st compasse round,

And whom both Poles of heaven once saw

Which North and South do bound,

The stars above, would make thee known,

If men here silent were;

The Sun himself cannot forget

His fellow traveller.


But 99% of the book glows with a dozen different kinds of genius. You’ll find quite a few of your favorites in these pages, plus, if Norbook has done his job well, plenty of poets whose further acquaintance you’ll want to make, their strengths and their music brought into unexpected highlights by the company they’re keeping here. Thomas Campion’s exquisitely worldly lines on the various entertainments of winter, for example:


Now winter nights enlarge

The number of their houres,

And clouds their stormes discharge

Upon the ayrie towers,

Let now the chimneys blaze,

And cups o’erflow with wine:

Let well-tun’d words amaze

With harmonie divine.

Now yellow waxen lights

Shall waite on hunny Love,

While youthfull Revels, Masks, and Courtly sights,

Sleepes leaden spels remove.

This time doth well dispence

With lovers long discourse;

Much speech hath some defence,

Though beauty no remorse.

All doe not all things well;

Some measures comely tread;lucy reads renpo

Some knotted Ridles tell;

Some Poems smoothly read.

The Summer hath his joyes,

And Winter his delights;

Though Love and all his pleasures are but toyes,

They shorten tedious nights.

God only knows what happened to the copy of The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse I originally bought back in 2005 at Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I came across this copy at the Brattle. I anticipate a few happy hours of browsing in it this weekend.