Introduction: Renaissance Poetry and Modern Readers
By context I mean the intellectual assumptions, the literary conventions, and the terminology which Renaissance poets shared with their contemporary readers, and which their poetry might in many different ways appraise, explore or question. I am concerned in this book with a range of assumptions about the nature and function of man which derive from fifteen hundred years of blending of the classical and Christian traditions. How did these traditions affect the educated English poet of the period 1580 to 1670? First, he was a Christian. He had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and of the language and arguments of theology. He was probably fairly widely read in works of religious controversy, both of his own day and (in fewer cases) of the early centuries of the Church. Second, he was a classical scholar. Latin was the basis of his education. He was widely read in Latin poetry, history and moral philosophy; he had some acquaintance with Greek, though he usually read Greek literature in Latin or English translations-only the exceptionally learned read Greek in the original. His knowledge of the classical and Christian traditions came not only from first-hand reading of the texts-the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, the Latin and Greek classics-but also from popular handbooks and encyclopedias which digested the traditions for him. He perhaps consulted these handbooks more often
than the original texts. He did not regard the traditions as separate; he read classical literature in the light of his Christian beliefs. However, the blending of these traditions did not create one uniform world picture; rather, it provided a range of sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory assumptions about and explanations of the nature of the physical universe, man’s relationship with God, his moral stature, and the purpose of his earthly activities.