Elizabethan Period Poetry: Characteristics & Themes



The first great age of the English language was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) in England. Named after the monarch, the Elizabethan age, produced some of the biggest marvels of English Literature in history.

The influence of Italy, France, and Spain on English literature continued in this age. Drama, novels, and poetry all enjoyed a golden age of literature along with fine arts, science and philosophy.

However, Poetry, together Drama, emerged as the most popular form. William Shakespeare, Edmund Spencer, Philip Sydney, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, etc are some of the poetic luminaries of the age.



The sonnet form, which became the dominant form of poetry and was the preferred style of Shakespeare himself (168 sonnets). Lyric, descriptive and narrative poetry also came into popular usage.

Shakespeare created a new kind of sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet (English sonnet). This was different than the more widespread form, the Petrarchan sonnet (brought from Italy by Thomas Wyatt, etc.).

Elizabethan sonnets have an iambic pentameter and consist of 14 lines with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. These are called three quatrains and a couplet.

In Petrarchan form, there are 14 lines of iambic pentameter divided into the “octet” or the first 8 lines and the “sestet” (the next six). There is a turn or “volta,” between the octet and sestet.

Here the poet gives a different perspective or argument and it occurs between the octet and the sestet. Sometimes the turn is reserved for the final couplet like William Shakespeare’s sonnet 130.

Edmund Spenser also called the father of poetic diction (English), wrote the famous poems The Fairie Queen which introduced the Spenserian stanza consisting of 8 iambic pentameter lines followed by an alexandrine (iambic hexameter) with ABABBCBCC rhyme scheme.


The socio-political life of the time was revitalized by the exploits of Renaissance and poetry also reflected that. The classical texts were heavily relied on for inspiration and themes.

Ideas of patriotism, nationalism, freedom, free speech, humanism, dominated the literary space. In stark contrast to Chaucer’s age, this age was embellished with the notions of grand romances, exorbitant metaphors, experimentation, and innovation.

The aggrandizement of love was the most visible notion that captivated the poets of the age like Ben Jonson’s To Cecilia etc. The age also witnessed an amalgamation of classical myth like Greek etc and English tales of elves and fairies.

This gave a boost to popular fictional elements as well. Other topics exploited by poets were political life, war, and conflict, the nature of life, the duality of man, etc.


Blank verse was the meter of choice for adding more drama to the text. It freed the poets from the clutches of making everything rhyme.

It was used profusely in drama as well by the likes of Shakespeare and  Christopher Marlowe and survived far beyond the Elizabethan era with the works like John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and William Wordsworth’s “Prelude.”

The language was rich with grand narratives and heroic tales. The writing was evocative, palliative and flowery. Clever wordplay, alliteration, and metaphors were commonly deployed.

The age is renowned for its bewitching lyrics like Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella or Shakespeare’s poems like Venus and Adonis. Double Entendres was the most adored device of the Elizabethan poets.

It comprises words or phrases with dual meanings, a benign explicit meaning and an implicit secondary one which was more sensual. The use of grandiose affectations like ‘conceit’ was also popular to add more intrigue and suspense to the narrative.

There was also a conscious appropriation of the past with the use of archaisms, old syntax, and obscure spellings. This created a sense of old glory and classicalism.

Beginning of the Metaphysical Poetry

At the far end of the Elizabethan age and the start of Jacobean age, a group called metaphysical poets became famous with the use of stark imagery in place if musical lyrics of the previous age.

John Donne popularized the metaphysical poetry early in the 17th Century. His religious poetry had dramatic realism, colloquialism, and direct speech.

George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, and Andrew Marvell were later poets influenced by Dunne’s work and made a progressive contribution to this genre of poetry.