We begin this selection of pre-Elizabethan poetry with the anonymously-authored ballad, Sir Patrick Spens, which pertains to an event said to have taken place in the 14th Century. This old work is
important in helping us compare the different styles of poetry and make them clearer in regard to the transition of Middle English to Early Modern English the language of
Spenser, Shakespeare and others, that was in use by the 15th Century.
We think it is well worth our time and the bytes invested to learn from what nourished these poets of the Golden Age: as in who and what influenced
them to create their glorious masterpieces. It is well known that all knowledge is based on previous discoveries made by our fathers and grandfathers. As the Bible teaches, There is nothing new under the sun.
All things have been created already. In art, and especially in poetry, the writer has to use the same basic human, instincts
and emotions as ancient writers. Aristotle said in his Poetics, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference
between him and the other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures Thus, what 14th century writers used to add to their works for us to imitate? The answer is, they used the same human emotions Homer used-love, hate, jealousy,
grief, etc. In the case of the ballad we are commenting on here, it is grief - the audience feeling pain for the lost sailor Sir Patrick Spens. Modern poets utilize these same emotions, nonetheless.
Click here to read the modern ballad John James Audubon by Stephen Vincent Benet, who transmits here admiration and pride to his readers.
Sir Patrick Spens is not the only anonymous work found in English literature of the Middle Ages. We have chosen it
because it is a good example of a story having been poetized. It is generally considered to have been a popular, oral account, handed down from generation to generation and published first in 1765.
The ballad recounts a dramatic and very interesting story about a supposed Scottish hero, Sir Patrick Spens, and it ends in a tragedy. This
tragedy is not based on Aristotles three principles of drama (Opening/head, Middle/body), and Ending) however, because the work was intended to be a poem more than a story. The principal purpose of a ballad was the relating of some important deed,
tragic incident, etc., that comes to a sudden and abrupt end. There exist today, both, a long and a short version of this ballad. You'll find here the short version. In order to read the longer one click here.
Of particular interest in this poem, is that it contains few Latin root words, despite the English language having been enriched with
many Latin words by King Alfred, the Great, in 878 AD, following his defeat of the Vikings in Edington. (30% of modern English is Latin-rooted words). There will be more about Latin words in subsequent articles.
Years before Sir Patrick Spens became a ballad, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his unfinished (about)17000-line poetic work,
The Canterbury Tales, between 1387 and 1400. This work is considered the finest example of Middle English. Although Chaucers work is not directly related to our topic, it is not irrelevant. We bring Chaucer up because he is a landmark
in the timetable of English literature, and we feel it is very important to be familiar with his work, before entering into Elizabethan poetry. His work, being more a short story collection than poetry, is constructed along Aristotles basic principles
mentioned above to form a dramatic, plotted story: someone is looking for something and in his/her effort to attain that goal produces the dramatic effect at the end-happiness (or failure, as the case may be). To read "The Wife of Bath" (prologue and tale)
in both Modern and Middle English, click here.
Having clarified the correlation between dramatic story and ballad, it is time for us to enter into the Elizabethan era,
that period in England's history known as the Golden Years.