A golden age of English literature commenced in 1485 and lasted until 1660. Malorys Le morte dArthur was among the first works to be printed by William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England in 1476. From that time on, readership was vastly multiplied. The growth of the middle class, the continuing development of trade, the new character and thoroughness of education for laypeople and not only clergy, the centralization of power and of much intellectual life in the court of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and the widening horizons of exploration gave a fundamental new impetus and direction to literature. The new literature nevertheless did not fully flourish until the last 20 years of the 1500s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Literary development in the earlier part of the 16th century was weakened by the diversion of intellectual energies to the polemics of the religious struggle between the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England, a product of the Reformation.
The English part in the European movement known as humanism also belongs to this time. Humanism encouraged greater care in the study of the literature of classical antiquity and reformed education in such a way as to make literary expression of paramount importance for the cultured person. Literary style, in part modeled on that of the ancients, soon became a self-conscious preoccupation of English poets and prose writers. Thus, the richness and metaphorical profusion of style at the end of the century indirectly owed much to the educational force of this movement. The most immediate effect of humanism lay, however, in the dissemination of the cultivated, clear, and sensible attitude of its classically educated adherents, who rejected medieval theological miss teaching and superstition. Of these writers, Sir Thomas More is the most remarkable. His Latin prose narrative Utopia (1516) satirizes the irrationality of inherited assumptions about private property and money and follows Plato in deploring the failure of kings to make use of the wisdom of philosophers. Mores book describes a distant nation organized on purely reasonable principles and named Utopia (Greek, nowhere). The poetry of the earlier part of the 16th century is generally less important, with the exception of the work of John Skelton, which exhibits a curious combination of medieval and Renaissance influences. The two greatest innovators of the new, rich style of Renaissance poetry in the last quarter of the 16th century were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.
Sidney, universally recognized as the model Renaissance nobleman, outwardly polished as well as inwardly conscientious, inaugurated the vogue of the sonnet cycle in his Astrophel and Stella (written 1582? ; published 1591). In this work, in the elaborate and highly metaphorical style of the earlier Italian sonnet, he celebrated his idealized love for Penelope Devereux, the daughter of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. ...
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