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This article is taken from PN Review 30, Volume 9 Number 4, March - April 1983.

Homage to Greville Neil Powell
 
During the sixteenth century, the language of England became our English language: that statement, though not strictly accurate, represents a common experience in reading literature. The intelligent non-specialist reader today may need the help of glossaries and notes to approach an early sixteenth-century text but is likely to feel perhaps treacherously at home with a late sixteenth-century one - a Shakespeare play, for instance - despite the considerable alterations of meaning and connotation which have taken place in the intervening four hundred years. Nor is this simply a matter of verbal comprehension: it is also a matter of a tone which engages our attention and creates the impression of a poet 'speaking' to us; and it is a matter of prosody, resulting from the re-establishment of iambic pentameter as the standard English metre during the sixteenth century. For a variety of reasons, the poetic voice of, say, 1580 often seems to speak to us as directly as that of 1680 or 1780 and rather more directly than that of 1880.

If we adopt Yvor Winters's useful and by now standard distinction between the two styles of English renaissance poetry (the plain or native style and the ornate or Petrarchan style), we shall probably find that the poets of the plain style speak to us with the greater immediacy. In this context, perhaps the most astonishing single poem of the English renaissance is 'Gascoigne's Woodmanship', in which the directness and intimacy of the speaking voice invariably amaze readers ...


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