True Order of Versifying. The Reform of Elizabethan Poetry


  • Stephen Orgel Stanford University



For a few decades in the sixteenth century, attempts were made to refashion English verse, as the Romans had refashioned theirs, according to the quantitative system of Greek poetry. The project now seems totally out of touch with the nature of the language and thus doomed to failure, but devising a system of quantitative poetry in English was a project that major poets and critics took seriously. Sir Philip Sidney wrote a good deal of quantitative verse, and Spenser and Gabriel Harvey discussed it and exchanged examples. Abraham Fraunce wrote notably successful poetry in classical meters; the volumes were popular and sold well. The larger assumption behind the proposals for the reform of English poetry was that the ‘barbarous’ England of the time could be rectified by the application of classical rules. A return to the classics held out the promise of culture and civility – not only in poetry, of course, but poetry seemed a particularly clear example. Nobody thought the transformation would be easy; a hectoring and bullying tone is common throughout the discussion. But a good deal of energy in the Elizabethan age went into the devising of strategies for becoming the new ancients, strategies of translation and adaptation, and the invention of appropriately classical-sounding models for vernacular verse, the domestication of the classic.

Keywords: verse; classicism; prosody; post-classical Latin; English; pronunciation

Author Biography

  • Stephen Orgel, Stanford University
    English, Professor