- Licentious Rhymers: John Donne and the Late-Elizabethan Couplet Revival
To modern readers accustomed to encountering couplets in the poems of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and their imitators, the form seems to represent the Enlightenment in miniature. The relentless chime of the end-rhymes and the perfect balance of the clauses seem tailor-made to transmit eighteenth-century views of rational judgment, discipline, and order.1 But the prominence of the staid eighteenth-century couplet has obscured an earlier, more risqué reputation of the form. Prior to 1600, iambic pentameter couplets were disdained by sophisticated English poets, who associated the rhyme scheme with loose verse and libertine thought. Though in the early seventeenth century Ben Jonson and his literary progeny converted the pentameter couplet into a form congenial to neo-classical restraint and balance, sixteenth-century poets and critics connected couplets with The Canterbury Tales and with an outmoded kind of verse they deemed merry, light, and vulgar. In the mid-1590s, a group of boisterous young poets revived and reimagined the couplet precisely because of its reputation as an ancient and licentious form. Reacting against the elaborateness of Elizabethan stanzaic poetry, these poets took up the couplet in order to flout newly established poetic laws and return English poetry to its original state of liberty.
The couplet poets—Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Everard Guilpin, Joseph Hall, John Marston, and Thomas Middleton—belonged to what can be loosely described as a new school of poetry that arose in the 1590s. Most of the poets who belonged to this school were in their twenties and many were students or residents at the Inns of Court. They defined themselves in opposition to a slightly older generation of poets who saw Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney as their modern masters, held up Virgil and Petrarch as their poetic forefathers, and favored genres like pastoral and the sonnet.2 The new poets of the 1590s instead chose to imitate witty and urbane Roman poets like Horace, Ovid, Martial, and Juvenal. They tested the limits of sexual propriety in love elegies and erotic epyllia and deflated the pretensions of polite society in satires and epigrams.3 And, while [End Page 529] their older contemporaries preferred to write in stanzaic forms and interwoven rhyme schemes, the new poets chose to revive a form that had been used intermittently over the course of the previous century: iambic pentameter couplets.
Donne played a formative role in this late-Elizabethan trend for writing in what Marlowe calls “looser lines.”4 In fact, Donne produced the largest and most varied body of couplet poetry in the 1590s. Donne’s status as a couplet poet has long been overlooked since the portion of his early corpus favored by modern readers, his “Songs and Sonnets,” consists largely of stanzaic poems.5 But nearly everything else Donne wrote in the 1590s—his elegies, satires, epigrams, and most of his verse letters—is in iambic pentameter couplets.6 Even in the “Songs and Sonnets,” where Donne rarely repeats a rhyme scheme, continuous couplets are by far the most frequently used verse form, occurring in 11 of 55 poems, including such well-known poems as “The Flea.” Moreover, as I show below, the few records that remain of Elizabethan and Jacobean engagement with Donne’s verse indicate that early readers did not privilege the “Songs and Sonnets” as we do and that they may have actually preferred his couplet verse.
By considering Donne’s early experiments with the couplet, I aim to provide a new perspective on a period of Donne’s career that has often proved elusive for several reasons: the lack of surviving Elizabethan manuscripts of Donne’s verse, Donne’s reserve about his verse practice and poetic influences, and the diversity of personae and moral positions that he adopts in his early poetry. Attending to verse forms can shed new light on Donne’s youthful thought as well as the cultural controversies that embroiled the Inns of Court in the 1590s because Renaissance poets and theorists did not isolate formal questions from social, political, and ethical concerns and, in fact, they often endeavored to defend and recommend the...