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Poets of the Renaissance - Is Love or Sex the Great Theme?

Updated on August 2, 2011

Love and Poetry Go Hand in Hand


Poets of The Renaissance

During the Renaissance, poets and their poetry was moving on from medieval themes such as religion and the church, and began to concentrate on a self-conscious awareness. Love proved to become a popular theme and the binaries that lie within the complexities of love. Themes within love included topics such as loss, solitude and change and from the time of Sir Thomas Wyatt onwards. Additionally, time, both past and present was also a prevalent idea in Renaissance poetry.

Sir Thomas Wyatt - 'They Flee from Me'

Among the most famous Renaissance writers was Sir Thomas Wyatt. His lyric poem ‘They flee from me’ is written in iambic pentameter that utilises the rhyme royal (ababbcc). It is an ambiguous and metaphorical poem that uses imagery and lexis associated with animals and nature to conceal the true sexual undercurrent of the poem. The key to this ambiguity lies within the use of ‘they’. The reader never discovers for certain who ‘they’ are but it can be assumed that the speaker is talking of the numerous women he has seduced, or who have seduced him. However, he does speak of a ‘special’ woman who was ‘twenty times better’ than these other women which does hint at a tone that reveals his possible feelings of regret at losing this woman.

Sexual Role Reversals?

At this time, many men in the courts followed King Henry’s womanizing example and took many mistresses. However, it is interesting in this poem as the male-female roles appear to be reversed; the lady catches the speaker in her arms and with a sexual confidence asks him, ‘how like you this?’. Additionally, ambiguous language is rife throughout; ‘bread’, for example is initially utilising the ‘bird’ metaphor as a bird takes bread from a human’s hand. However, as ‘bread’ is a slang word for money, it may insinuate that as they took ‘bread at my hand’, they were possibly prostitutes exchanging sex for money, or it could simply be referring to these women’s sexual hunger and appetite for new sexual experiences. The words ‘seeking’ and ‘change’ also reinforce this idea. ’ The poem appears to be an accurate depiction of the dualistic society at the time and its attitudes to sex and love. The contrasting words such as ‘flee’ and ‘seek’ as well as ‘tame’ and ‘wild’ portray a contradictory society that is secretive and where gender reversal is a prominent idea that would be reinforced within the Elizabethan reign.

Queen Elizabeth I - 'When I Was Fair and Young'

In contrast to Wyatt’s poem, ‘When I was fair and Young’ was written from a woman's perspective, by Elizabeth I. It could in fact also be read as a poem written by the woman in Wyatt's poem or a woman in similar situation. It is important to remember that not only is a woman writing in a man’s world using a man’s form of poetry, but she is one of England’s greatest monarchs. However, she is also known as the ‘Virgin Queen’ which could alter our reading of the poem somewhat. In comparison, she also uses bird imagery, but in this case describes the male in the poem as having ‘plumes’ instead of the bird imagery being associated with women.

The Life of a Feminist Queen?

Elizabeth was known for her flirtatious manner, and could be compared to Wyatt’s beloved who speaks so sexually confidently to her pursuer. Nevertheless, this speaker appears to be portraying her isolation by emphasising ‘how many’ desired her. These rejected suitors emphasise her physical and political situation. Elizabeth pledged to be married to England and never a man. However, as simply a woman with human emotion, she feels this pain of loneliness and desire for reciprocal love as most human beings do. The repetition of ‘go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more’ is almost a pleading to stay away from her as she may be tempted. The infidelity referred to in this poem is an infidelity to people and country, whereas in Wyatt’s poem, it takes on a more literal and somewhat seedy meaning and form.


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    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I have to admit I never have heard of Sir Thomas Wyatt until now nor did I know Elizabeth I wrote any poems. Now that I have, I must check them out! Seems like they did a bit of exploring of gender roles in those days, too! Thanks for an informative article Jenjohn!