About Reading Early Modern Authors and Lyric Poets in particular
Literature in Early Modern English poses special challenges to students who are mainly used to reading short or long ModE prose pieces like the typical American short story or the twentieth-century novel. The lyric poem packs information far more densely. Its form matters a great deal to its meaning, sometimes giving statements ironic "spin," or undercutting them completely. Meter constructs a rhythmic pattern under the words' meaning that shapes our response to the words as stirring, softening, rising or falling in emphasis, etc. Rhyme scheme joins together words in significant groups based specifically on their sound, but also sometimes relating to their sense. For that reason, you have to remember the visual appearance and aural texture of some lyric poems, as well as a prose summary of their meaning. Most ModE readers, which is to say "silent readers," do not really experience the visual layout and sound of what they read, but remember only a prose summary. Those of you who have taken English 215 and know the New Critics realize that this is nothing less than "the heresy of paraphrase," itself. Although they had no psychological data to support their prohibition on substituting a prose summary (AKA "Cliff's Notes") of the work for "the text, itself," they certainly suspected that something was wrong with that kind of reading. Modern literacy research has demonstrated that reading literature aloud was nearly universal practice until well into the eighteenth century. See especially Joyce Coleman's Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France (Cambridge: CUP, 1996; 028.9 C692p). This means that you will have to adopt some new reading strategies to read this literature competently. No more silent staring at the page. You must perform Early Modern texts aloud to really understand them.
If you are serious about the study of literature, either because you plan to attend graduate school or you want to be a major author yourself, you will read aloud as much of each day's assignment as you can. If your ambitions are more modest, you need a more economical reading-aloud strategy. Wyatt, Surrey, and Sidney (Monday) are extremely important examples of the way Early Modern English literature grew by translating Italian and French verse forms into ever more original English poems. When studying many short poems, you will need help remembering and understanding them. Be systematic! Select at least one poem of each type of poem a poet writes and make it your tool for anchoring his/her style in memory. Pay close attention to the literary devices like metaphor and simile which enrich poems' sentences with patterns of meaning. Do not assume the speaking voice is the poet's ordinary voice. Pay attention to the "persona" or mask each poem's speaker puts on as part of the poem's assumed situation. In addition to the characteristic form of their sonnets (rhyme scheme and meter), the personae are crucial clues to identifying these poets' works, and to tracing their influence when later poets borrow from them.
Wyatt's speakers often are angry at, despairing about, or sharply critical of their relationships with other (usually female) persons the poems presume to be present as the "addressee" (e.g., "Madam, withouten many words / Once, I am sure, ye will or no"). He occasionally, and anonymously, allows almost completely autobiographical poems to circulate, like "Whoso list to hunt," "Whoso list his wealth and ease retain," and "Mine own John Poins," but the personae and situations of the rest of his poems tend to be more playful and hard to pin down to specific historical persons or events. Surrey's personae (the plural) are almost always sad, lamenting misfortunes political or erotic, sometimes openly autobiographical ("So cruel prison how could bedide, alas, / As proud Windsor...") but he also adopts the persona of a woman talking to other women about her absent lover ("O hapy dames, that may embrace / The fruit of your delight"). Like Wyatt's "John Poins," Surrey turns his lyric voice to satire, and like Wyatt, he can take on no less a satiric target than his king, in the savagely scornful "Th'Assyrians' king, in peace with foul desire." Sidney, a poet of the next generation, borrows from both Wyatt and Surrey, having grown up reading their work in manuscript and in Richard Tottel's Songes and sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other (1557, AKA "Tottel's Miscellany"). His most ambitious and productive addition to the English sonnet tradition may be the continuous persona of his sonnet cycle, "Astrophil" (star-lover). That speaker uses exotic comparisons and hyperbolic claims, including classical "personification" (making ideas or things into persons) to describe his love for "Stella" (star) and her effects upon him. This is distantly related to the personification allegory in Everyman, but the topic here is secular, or rather the poems elevate an erotic love to quasi-divine status. That is how radically English literary culture has changed in only half a century. At other times "Astrophil" claims to be a plain-spoken dude who uses no special effects and certainly needs no classical training to praise his beloved. Does he contradict himself? Of course, but how are we to interpret it? Compare More's Utopians, who sometimes seem so sensible (pay mercenaries rather than sending your own people to die in wars) and at others are so hard to believe (using gold for slaves' chains and chamber pots). Once again, we are being played with by a poet with serious and ironic intentions, braided together so tightly that he dares us to find our way through them. Choosing "anchor poems" from each type will help you remember these poets' style, and this will help you spot the later poets who learned from and borrowed that style.