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Pleasure And Pain In English Poetry English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3708 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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English literature of the Renaissance period in northern Europe is marked by some special characteristic features. One of them is the close interrelation between the religious beliefs and the wide use of the antique heritage traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. That is why this period is characterized by some specific topics. One of them is the relationship between pleasure and pain. This theme is widely revealed in the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century, though the Renaissance period in English literature goes on until the late seventeenth century. The period described in this essay covers the main works of English poets and writers of the mid-sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century ending with the death of the most prominent author in English and world’s literature William Shakespeare in 1616. The thesis of this essay is that the specific description of relationships between pleasure and pain is a result of the main philosophical ideas of that time.

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Pleasure and Pain in English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century

According to Isabel Rivers, “both classical and Christian cultures shared a belief in an original state of human perfection, in which man lived effortlessly and in complete harmony with nature, free from time, change and death.” [1] That is why the literary development of the medieval England and France was equally influenced by the great works of antiquity and the literary tradition of the Italian Renaissance writers. These ideas helped revive the English literature, though the idea of necessary suffering while seeking pleasure and love was the dominant in these literary current. It started with the poetry by the Italian author Petrarch, and moved on with the most prominent English ports of those times – Wyatt and Surrey. Both these authors came from the ruling classes, participated in government service and visited Italy at some period of their lives. Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poems were rooted deeply in the English tradition. The effects of Petrarch’s poems were seen vividly in his translations and his sonnets. In fact, Wyatt was the first who introduced this form of verse into English literature. His main theme is love but described in the Petrarchan tradition. There is always a cruel but innocent lady who remains indifferent to her lover’s feelings and makes him suffer severely. This perception of love is rather paradoxal: love brings pain, and there is much pleasure in this pain. For example, in Wyatt’s sonnet 17, there are the lines which describe this idea quite distinctly: “I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain. Likewise, displeased me both death and life, and my delight is caused by this strife.” [2] It is quite evident from these lines that the author is more interested in his inner feelings caused by love than by the woman herself.

Another port of that time, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, is also devoted to the ideas of painful love. As his contemporary, he is also stricken by the severe politics of Henry’s court where the king’s wives are beheaded so easily despite any their best feelings. This is one more reason why the poets of that time expressed the ideas of pleasure and pain in the unbreakable unity. In the poem “So Cruel Prison How Could Betide”, Surrey expresses the contradiction between the fear of monarch’s anger and the necessity to stay next to him for the fear of pain from the exile.

The Elizabethan Age of Poetry

The reign of Elizabeth I is marked by the culmination of the Renaissance literature in England. This is also the period when the ideas of interrelation of pleasure and pain can be followed most distinctly. Actually, as Michelle O’Callaghan argues, “the shepherd’s life was anesthetized in Elizabethan pastoral fiction.” [3] The attention should be paid to the four most prominent authors of those times. These authors are Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe and, of course, Shakespeare.

Sir Philip Sidney spent his short life in court circles. He was interested in classical humanistic ideas and described his ideas in different fields, such as pastoral romance, the sequence of sonnets and in his critical literary writings. Donald Lemen Clark argues that for Sidney, “poetry is the most effective instrument for forwarding virtue.” [4] The idea of pleasure and pain is most vividly seen in his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella consisting of 108 sonnets and eleven songs. He strives to examine different aspects of love with immense clarity and passion following Petrarch’s ideas of cruel love to Laura and the pains it causes.

Of course, the main aspect of Petrarch’s love depiction is sexual. This aspect produces the severe conflict between the human love, on the one hand, and striving to reject the world for the divine, on the other hand. This conflict, in its turn, is able to produce shame, tension and guilt. Of course, such poetry was created to amuse kings and their courtiers. However, it also implies some patterns of behavior and even sexual pathologies, such as masochism, sadism, exhibitionism and voyeurism. The beloved woman is certainly fetishized, but she is not allowed to follow her own desires. If she rejects the lover’s exclusive passions, she is treated as a cruel and deserving punishment. Here, fear and idealization are mixed together. The male expresses his erotic associations through the description of his beloved one’s shoes, hair, smells, items of clothing, though her physical presence always seems a certain treat to him. If the feeling of love is not answered properly by this beautiful woman, the poet expresses the masochistic ideas of enjoying pain from the denial, and the expectation that this pain will be rewarded soon with still more gratification and pleasure. This court love game is always certain sort of amusement and it evokes still more interest in its followers. As a Puritan believer, Sidney could not completely accept such views. That is why his Astrophel and Stella is not a pure expression of these ideas, but a sort of sarcasm and criticism of them. It was published in 1591 as a certain response to the political events, ideas of Reformation and threats of Counter Reformation, influences of national moral principles and religious requirements which still enforce the vividness of pain and pleasure relationships described in literature of those times. So, the influences of the Italian poetry with its painful love and the necessity of punishment were seen more distinctly here. They were still enforced by the evident contradictions between the sexual desire and religious demands and prescriptions.

Sidney was, of course, in the heart of English politics by his birth, though some of his ideas and beliefs seemed to be rather irritating for the Queen. That is why he was exiled from the court, and most of his best works were written in this exile, far away from the temptations of the courtier’s life. His attempts to revive Petrarch’s patterns on the basis of parody and criticism did not meet understanding and acceptation, either. In his sonnets, we watch Sidney de-romantizes Petrarch’s lover’s sufferings. While Petrarch does not see any contradictions between love and virtue, Sidney makes an attempt to reveal the wrongfulness of this idea. In Sonnet No 14, Astrophel refuses to accept his friend’s warning’s about the sinful nature of his love stating that “If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed/ A loathing of all loose unchastity/ Then love is sin and let me sinful be”. [5] Stella also wants to call Astrophel for self-restraint, but in vain. The result is the complete moral and spiritual paralysis of the main character, expressed in the last sonnet. In fact, the rejection of certain moral principles and religious restrictions leads to the complete collapse of Astrophel, which is depicted by Sidney as the greatest pain which the person may cause to himself by the unwise deeds. No expectation of the further pleasure is seen here, so all Sidney’s ideas of pain and pleasure are closed intertwined with religious obligations and morals of those times.

Another greatest poet of Elizabethan epoch was ‘Edmund Spenser’. He was affected in his literary ideas and concepts by the chivalric epic tradition of the court and the ideas of Renaissance humanism. The medieval tradition also influenced him very much which found its expression in the allegoric forms and elements. He also wrote pastoral poetry which was not actually pastoral by their nature and the sonnets closely connected with the poetical trends of his time. His most famous sonnet sequence Amoretti was dedicated to his beloved wife whom he married in 1594. However, all his sonnets are written in Petrarchan tradition, with the immense praise and adoration to the beloved woman. The traditional comparisons of the woman’s eyes to the moon, sun, stars and other Universe objects is also used here. Though, the idea of punishment for the rejection of the lover’s feelings is absent here. The stress is made on the belief that, though the woman is cruel enough to reject the passionate addresses, she is divine, because she does not consist of the four main elements of the human nature, but of the fifth element implying the sky.

In fact, Spenser proposes the solution of this love conflict. He makes an attempt to show in what way it is possible to tame the sins of physical desire, lust and egotism, and legitimize them in marriage. The Amoretti reveals the wrongfulness of Petrarch’s character’s further expectations by the possibility of looking for the true Christian love instead of being locked up in the egoistic self-hood of sufferings. So, the Protestant moral values are effectively interwoven into the plot. Spencer’s character, Florinell, finds possibilities to overcome the traditional unhappy perceptions and the experiences of the Petrarchan lover, such as masochistic enjoyment of the lost love and observing the pain from this loss. The voyeuristic perceptions of the beloved physical sexuality and attractiveness are also absent here. In fact, Spencer’s goal for his sonnet sequence is to show how the severest loss may be turned into gain by the complete rejection of the selfish and egoistic desires and strives. Spencer’s love gains his beloved woman by his ability to completely control his feelings and make the woman believe in the purity and seriousness of his intentions. Spencer affirms the attraction of the married love instead of the egoistic sufferings of the rejected love affair. As it is seen from Sonnet No 65, Spencer gives a sufficient answer to the Petrarchan problem. The physical desire, egotism and lust should be conquered by mutual loyalty and sacrifice, and the happiness may be easily achieved by good will and shared faith.

Pleasure and Pain in the English Dramatic Tradition

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, England had already possessed a rich dramatic tradition. However, all the dramatic performances were based on the religious plots and moral restrictions. The plays of the medieval period were so-called miracle plays based on the themes from the Bible, the lives of saints. The coming of Renaissance evoked the ancient passions and depiction of the physical love, sufferings and contradictions featured in the depiction of love affairs of different antique gods and goddesses. One of the most prominent playwrights of this epoch was Christopher Marlowe who made an attempt to modify and modernize the use of the blank verse for the dramatic performances. His main characters were real people who were the complete protagonists whose actions could determine and change the entire course of the events. His greatest play, Edward the Second, changed completely the statistic approach to the characters’ development, accepted in the previous dramatic works. It is a real tragedy with all contradictions between pleasure and pain related to the Renaissance period in English literature. The main character of this play is King Edward II who ruled the country in 1307-1327. Then, he was betrayed, deposed and murdered. Marlowe shows this king as a weak personality who relies on the mercy of others. His main passion is the homosexual affection to his favorite. Simultaneously, his wife, Queen Isabella, has a love affair with the young courtier, Mortimer, and they develop a plot against the king. Mortimer’s strive is to gain the throne, so he orders to murder the deposed king. However, the king’s son, Edward III, finds out the details of the plot and takes revenge by putting Mortimer to death immediately and his mother to the Tower. The dynamism of the play development shows in the changing sympathies of the audience to the deposed king. The audience does not sympathize to the lustful and sinful king at the beginning of the play, though till the end of it the sides are changed, especially in the last scenes depicting the murder. The passions and desires that led the king to this ghastly position are accepted by the audience with different attitudes, because they begin to understand where the real evil lies. Marlowe was developing in his views himself. He was growing in his relation to the wrongful conquerors and winners and the weak victim’s of their own passions and desires. So, the theme of pleasure is effectively intertwined with the theme of pain and punishment, which makes the tragedy very dynamic and realistic.

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Of course, the whole picture of the English literature Renaissance would be rather incomplete without analyzing the works of the greatest English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. He was born in 1564, the same year as Marlowe, but his talent was developing slower and more consistently. That is why he managed to finish successfully his literary career and to become the true genius in the field of English Renaissance poetry and drama of the Elizabethan epoch. The theme of relationships between pleasure and pain goes strictly throughout the whole literary heritage of this prominent personality. In fact, his literary works are divided into some different periods. The first period was devoted to highly patriotic historical plays, “happy” comedies as well as the romantic tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet. Certainly, the well-known tragedy Romeo and Juliet is devoted to the description of great pains and disasters of the shared love and passions of the two young people who come from the families that are enemies. That is why the conflict is in the impossibility for them to develop their relations and to stay together. The social conflict relates directly to the inner conflicts between the duty and the passion of the young people who prefer to follow their feelings rather than become the victims of the social relations.

As for Shakespearean comedies, they are also characterized by a great deal of romanticism and realism in the depiction of people’s passions and desires. This perfect blend allows the author to interpret freely the Renaissance themes of love, pleasure and possible pain. His dramatic characters are real people who act in the imaginative settings, in strange surroundings and remote places. Shakespeare’s early comedies are certainly true comedies of love which usually end in many marriages. In fact, this is not an egoistic suffering. Shakespeare shows the true love as a spiritual unity of minds and hearts. Unlike the Petrarchan depiction of a heroine as a complete perfection of physical features, Shakespeare’s Rosalind Portia, Beatrice or Viola are charming and noble, but wise, joyous, peaceful and harmonious. They know well how to achieve their goals and resolve conflicts. However, some tragic notes are also present in these comedies. For example, The Merchant of Venice shows the tragic scene of signing the bond. Though, such tragic elements are not dominating, because all the difficulties and complications fade away in front of real love and the winning power of Fortune, which result in happy ends. So, Shakespearian comedies reveal the broader vision of life. They are more humanistic, and their message is not a ruinous passion, but an ideal combination of the best Renaissance features with the spiritual perfectness of Christianity.

The second period of Shakespeare’s creative work is characterized by the chronicled plays and the “bitter” comedies where the relationships between physical desires and moral pains, the duties and the selfish attractions are shown with still greater and more mature force of the true artistic talent. This is still more vividly demonstrated in the great tragedies of the third period. Concerning the theme of relationships between the pleasure and pain, the tragedy Othello is the most characteristic of them all. Shakespeare’s tragic characters are strong people who suffer greatly. Their fall always produce the cathartic effects on the audience. Though Othello possesses lot o noble qualities, he is a true-to-life person with immense credulity and rashness in deeds. That is why his best characteristics are wasted in vain, and his passions lead him to the tragic final. Shakespeare’s ideas about affected love and its consequences are that every person should be responsible for his/her own wrongful actions and incorrect decisions before himself, and that all the calamities usually follow the unwise deeds of the man, as a sort of some inevitable punishment for the past pleasure and light-mindedness. Fate always plays an immense role in these tragedies as a powerful source of pain and catastrophe, and it is always up to the character how to tackle this factor correctly. So, the character’s actions and inclinations as well as his destiny are usually responsible for the fatal end. So, Desdemona is killed by her beloved husband in the stroke of rage, and Othello kills himself when he realizes his mistake.

The most vivid depiction of such a conflict during the fourth period of Shakespeare’s creative work is his tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. Here, the conflict between the duty of the great warrior and military leader Antony and his male desire and seeking pleasure from the Queen of Egypt leads the main character to the complete disaster. This conflict is revealed from the very opening lines of the play when Philo and Demetrius discuss the situation and criticize Antony for neglecting his duties.

Antony has already made sufficient steps towards his self-destruction. The brave soldier is lost in front of the beautiful woman who is a dark character corrupting Antony’s manliness. The first stage of the play shows the character’s satisfaction with the object of his desire. This continues to the second stage when the hero does not understand the destructive nature of his lust yet, and makes further mistakes, though the whole course of action is still satisfactory. The next stage shows the signs of frustration and pain, when the events start going wrong for Antony. He is not able already to make a correct choice, so he commits further foolish actions, and even crimes, killing his best followers and advisors. The tragedy proceeds with the nightmare stage when the hero loses control completely and becomes immensely frustrated and desperate. This isolates him further from doing his duties, following his compatriots and performing the heroic deeds he used to do in the past. At the end of the play, he wishes death and commits suicide. Such a final is not quite traditional for the Renaissance literature, where the character normally suffers his pains caused by the desperate love alone and even admires these pains. This final makes Shakespeare’s play a quite realistic tragedy, free from the traditional masochistic views and perceptions. In fact, as it is stated by Sasha Roberts, “Shakespearean drama tends to unsettle the very idea that we can arrive at any moral certainty, particularly since the figures and institutions of moral authority in Shakespearean drama are repeatedly shown to be conflicted or compromised” [6] 


In conclusion, it is worth saying that the English literature of the Renaissance period has developed the unique idea of resolving the conflict between the pleasure and pain in the overcoming passions and physical lust by means of the ideas of humanism and implementing the religious morals and restrictions to the real life situations. This is an immense progress which has proceeded from the influences of the antique writings of ancient Greek and Roman authors depicting the physical love and satisfaction with the full covering of all the aspects of this passion and its consequences, through the influence of the Italian Renaissance writers such as Petrarch or Dante with their rejected love, self-admiration and vain expectations of further pain rewards, to the humanistic ideas that only the combination of physical and spiritual perfectness can bring about the true love, loyalty and happiness. All the other variants of love affair development based on the earthly passions and affections are considered to be ruinous and devastating for a personality.


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