English poetry begins with Beowulf, the stark, pounding drama of a great hero and his triumph over monsters. Other civilizations had epic heroes, too. The Sumerians had Gilgamesh; the Chinese had Sun Wukong, the monkey king; the Greeks had Odysseus. And, like Beowulf, these were poems told over and over again around which a national identity was formed. Lesser poetry also existed, but in England it was mostly simple rhyme, rules for forecasting the weather, popular remedies for illness, guides for planting, and other elements of folk wisdom. Rhyme and rhythm were simply aids to memory.
If Saint Paul's Day be fair and clear
Religious poetry also existed, but it was in Latin, confined to the church and, like the doggerel of the day, utilitarian in nature. Beauty was not the goal, nor did it try to capture or convey emotion.
Then Chaucer appeared. At the end of the fourteenth century he traveled throughout Europe as an emissary of Edward III and later Richard II, gathering intelligence and delivering messages. In the course of his travels he became familiar with Boccaccio's Decameron—a collection of profiles, stories and dirty jokes—and saw in it a framework for a collection of his own. In 1380 he began The Canterbury Tales.
In the fifteenth century poems were coming to England of an entirely new kind. The Italian Renaissance, the rise of printing, and the freedom of discourse stimulated by the Reformation all helped to encourage a new wave of classical and contemporary verse. Prominent among the writers circulating anew was Homer, the ancient Greek, telling his proud stories in verse that showed the way for the long striding works of Milton, Tennyson, Longfellow, and others:
Now when with rosy fingers, th' early born
Catullus arrived, the Roman poet from the first century BC who brought a direct and sometimes erotic voice. He had a jaunty tone with a touch of sarcasm that presented the poet as a wit, well read and eager to persuade. Especially when meeting a potential lover.
You ask how many kissings of you, Lesbia,
Sappho, the seventh century Greek poet, contributed a third element: a lyric voice, a sensitivity to nature, and a focus on love that became a prominent characteristic of English poetry:
Like the wild hyacinth flower
And finally came the mournful and introspective Dante, clawing at his own soul:
Midway upon the journey of our life
To these archetypes, Petrarch, the contemporary Italian poet, added the 14-line sonnet, a new structure concise and wittily formed that foreshadowed Shakespeare and centuries of poets to follow.
She ruled in beauty over this heart of mine,
What luck. The long narrative, the witty argument, the lyric love song, the gloomy introspective . . . these rich models together gave educated young men of sixteenth century England the platform for a new literature, and we find their coloration reaching on for hundreds of years, even to Hawthorne, Frost and Millay. No other country in the world enjoyed such an inheritance, and within a few decades the results became gloriously apparent.