At the beginning of the Elizabethan Age, English literary forms we still in the making but at the end of the period there was a rich and varied literary form. An outline of the development of Elizabethan literary form is given here:
(a) Dramatic poetry
(b) Lyrical poetry
(c) Descriptive and Narrative poetry
(e) Satirical and
(f) didactic poetry.
(c) Literary criticism
(i) Pastoral romance
(j) Secular and serious prose.
a. Dramatic Poetry: The adventurous spirit of the age was no where more clear than in its dramatic poetry. Shakespeare, Marlowe and other university wits used blank verse with great success. Even Gorboduc was a kind of dramatic poetry. The post Shakespearean dramatist also used blank verse and elements of poetry in their works. The use of Blank verse is suitable to fulfil the demands of varying emotions.
b. The Lyrical Poetry: The temper of the age was suited to the lyrical mood and it continues through the drama in all their stages. The forms of the lyric are many and its tone is musical, wild and natural. An important sub-division of the lyric is the sonnet. We have seen it took two forms- the Italian and Petrarchan form and the English or Shakespearean type. During this period both kinds flourished, the English kind to a greater degree.
c. Descriptive and narrative poetry: This was an important class of poems. It culminates the allegorical poetry of Spenser. The pastoral is also a kind of descriptive poem. Marlowe ‘Hero and Leander’, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis', ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, Spenser's ‘Shepherd's Calendar’ are distinguished poems of descriptive and narrative poems.
d. Religious, satirical and didactic poetry: These were not equal in importance to the rest. During this period satirical poems were written. For example. Gascoigne's Steel Glass is one of the earliest satires and it is followed by Donne's satires.
2. Drama: The opening of the Elizabethan period sought drama struggling into maturity. The early type of this time was scholarly in tone and aristocratic in authorship. Next came the work of the University Wits Peele, Greene, Lodge, Kyd and the greatest of all Marlowe. In their hand's drama began to realise it's potentialities and vitality which typify Elizabethan drama. And the development of the dramatic form of this age reached its climax in Shakespeare approximately in the year (1595-1615). We can say that it is the crown and flower of the Elizabethan literary achievement. And it embodies the entire spirit of drama and poetry.
The decline begins with Jonson and continues with Dekker, Heywood, Webster etc. Jonson's comedy was humorous, Dekker's was a breezy comedy, Webster was revenge melodramatic. In post Shakespearean drama light comedy was popular and the tragic note degenerated into melodrama and horrors. With regard to the development of the different dramatic types, tragedy develops first and in Shakespearean all kinds received attention, tragedy most of all.
3. Prose: In the Elizabethan times the development of prose was slower than that of poetry. The various types of prose work are listed below.
a. The Essay: The essay and different other writings finally developed in the work of Bacon. Some essays show the character sketches.
b. Novel: There were a few novel works. For example: More's ‘Utopia’, Sidney's ‘Arcadia’, Lyly's ‘Euphues’ (1579). Bacon's, ‘New Atlantis’ (1626) and Nash's “The Unfortunate Traveler” are some of the novels of the time.
c. Literary Criticism: The birth of literary criticism indicates the growing stature and the realization of the need to establish principles of good writing. The literary criticism was concerned with three topics.
(i) The status and value of poetry: Sidney in his “Apology for Poetry” tried to defend poetry.
(ii) The importance of classical models.
(iii) The merits and demerits of rhyme
d. Miscellaneous Prose: Pamphlet, theological works. sermons, translations, travel etc. were voluminous and important.
In conclusion, we can say The strength and beauty of Elizabethan poetic style are well marked in different stages in history. The earliest period (1550-1580) is that of Sidney and the university wits. This is the formative and imitative period and during this period the dependence on classical origin was strong. In this period appear the sonnet, the blank verse and many of the beautiful lyrical forms.
The Spenserian and Shakespearean stage (1580-1615) is the stage of highest development. There are fullness, freshness and grandeur of style, unequalled in any other period of English literature. There are the lyrics and allegories of Spenser, the poems, dramas and lyrics of Shakespeare and other poems and plays of other writers. The style is varied but the universal note is romantic.
In the second decade of the seventeen century, the decline is apparent in the use of phraseology, vocabulary and the general bloom of style pass into the lightness of fancy. Or the high seriousness degenerated into the gloomy manner of Webster's tragedy.
However, unlike poetry, the style of prose enjoys a steady development and continued from the previous age and maintained throughout the Elizabethan age. The Euphemism and Arcadianism prevailed as the important style of the Elizabethan prose. In other words, the prose has elements of poetry.
However, the prose of Bacon and others in the later stages represents the furthest development of the time. Prose style has yet a great deal to learn but it is learning fast.